China produces more watermelon than any other country on earth, by far. It was estimated that China produced over 154 billion pounds of watermelon in 2012. That’s about 40 times more than was produced in the U.S. during the same year. Watermelon is produced and consumed as if it were essential for life.
While watermelon can be bought year-round in many places in China, it is during the summer months when the growing season peaks. Starting in late spring, thousands upon thousands of trucks carry piles of watermelon from farms to cities. During peak harvest, watermelon is abundant in almost every city in China.
In small to medium-sized cities, the vendors sell the hefty, juice-laden melons right from the truck beds. In first tier cities, such as Shanghai and Hangzhou, you almost never see watermelons being sold directly from a truck. Instead, the melons are sold at fruit stores and supermarkets.
Watermelon is usually sold by the jīn, a unit of weight. One jīn is equal to 500 g. If you want to ask a vendor for the price of his or her watermelon, you can ask, yī jīn duō shǎo qián? The number one in Mandarin is yī. Duō shǎo qián means how much money. So you are asking how much money for one jīn.
The price of watermelon varies with the local cost of living. In small to medium-sized cities in central China, a watermelon with seeds cost 5 máo (fēn)/500 g (jīn), while the seedless variety costs 8 máo (fēn) /500 g (jīn). Máo, also called fēn, is a unit of money. Ten máo equals one yuán (Chinese dollar). Converting to US dollars and pounds, the cost of watermelon is $ .08 – .12 /lb. In first tier cities in the south of China, watermelon is significantly more expensive, costing anywhere from 1 – 2 yuán / 500 g (jīn), that’s $.15 – .30 USD / lb. Due to the higher cost of watermelon in more expensive cities, it’s more common to see the watermelon being sold by the slice there.
During the sweltering days of summer, watermelon is eaten to cope with the heat and stay hydrated. Vendors often consume a couple of their own melons to prevent dehydration.
Vendors will select a watermelon for you, if you want them to. I suggest selecting a melon yourself. Vendors only want to make a sale, and they will choose any melon that’s near them. However, you can get the vendor to help sort through the melons by telling them what size melon you want. In Chinese, xiǎo means small, zhōng means medium, and dà means large.
Most of the watermelons are shipped from farm to city by big trucks. However, the big trucks usually stop at staging areas on the outskirts of the city, and their payload is transferred to a fleet of smaller trucks that can navigate the city streets. Some of the melons find their way to market on three-wheeled vehicles that are part motorbike and part pick-up truck. I’ve seen more kinds of vehicles in China than I’ve seen in any other country.
To while away the slow hours, young male vendors will chain smoke and use their smartphones for entertainment purposes. The use of smartphones has exploded exponentially in the world’s most populous country. In China, the internet is accessed more often by using smartphones than by using desktops, laptops, or tablets. Smartphones can turn a dull afternoon at the melon stand into hours of easy going distraction through watching movies and TV programs.
Some watermelon vendors erect canopies off the backs of their trucks, creating open air shelters than serve as both store front and lounging area. For these vendors, their day appears to be like an urban picnic where they alternate between lounging and selling melons.