Kon Ping Young doesn’t get much down time when his customers need their snack fix at the Crack Seed Store in Kaimuki, which opened in 1979.
Young has sweat spots on his shirt and moves between glass containers filled with imported dried and pickled fruits from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. He estimates he might have about 100 varieties of fruit in his small establishment, one of the few crack seed shops left on Oahu.
One woman orders li hing mango; another, li hing cherries and dried apricots. Young only really stops to fill a large order of li hing mui — the dried, sweet and sour plum seeds that many locals have grown up with.
But here’s something else that gives Young pause: His shop is among an ever-shrinking number of crack seed businesses in Hawaii facing a more uncertain future in light of a new round of U.S. imposed tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports that took effect Monday.
Though Young doesn’t get his fruits from mainland China, which the tariffs would directly affect, he’s concerned they might impact the Southeast Asia region and in turn, his prices.
“Like anything else, things come and they go,” Young said. “There’s very little we can do.”
The Office of the United States Trade Representative released a list of about 5,700 Chinese imports Sept. 17 that would be subject to this new round of tariffs. Included are ingredients for many local treats like dried meats, fish and fruits (plums are the main ingredient for li hing mui and li hing powder).
The U.S. is expected to impose an additional 25 percent tariff on Chinese goods Jan. 1. President Donald Trump said in a statement that if China retaliates against the U.S. impositions again, he will extend the tariffs to cover $267 billion worth of Chinese imports.
Deanne Ho, owner of Jade Food Products in Waipahu, says the company obtains its fruits locally and from the U.S. mainland. However, it gets its rice crackers and seafood products from China.
Ho said there will be some lag time between the tariffs taking effect and consumers seeing any price increases.
Because Jade Food sells to retailers like Foodland, Times Supermarkets, Walgreens and Walmart, it needs to submit its shelf prices in advance for approval, Ho said.
Its holiday prices have already been approved and can’t change, so any extra costs resulting from tariffs will come from the company’s profits.
“It’s your profit. It just hurts,” Ho said.
Kailua/Kona-based Snack Hawaii had been seeing its prices for li hing mui increase every time it ordered, even before the tariffs were placed on imports, said Brooke Wong, who runs the company’s website. She says the tariffs will affect her business, she just doesn’t know to what extent yet.
Snack Hawaii, which is operated by Asia Trans & Co. Inc., works with an importer from California to get its Asian snacks from China, Thailand and the Philippines.
“For us to work directly with a supplier to get (products) to Hawaii was impossible,” Wong said.
Another longtime local crack seed establishment, Seed City in Pearlridge Center, stopped importing seeds even before new tariffs were imposed.
Now, Nina Eom, who runs the 30-plus-year-old establishment under a staircase in the shopping mall, doesn’t know if Seed City will ever carry imported fruits again.
“Customers want those tastes,” Eom said of the flavors found in southeast Asian fruits. “But we can’t bring it to them.”
Some customers have told her that the fruit tastes different than it did when the products were all imported.
Regarding flavor, she says that the glass jars Seed City holds its seeds in also makes a difference. Seed City and Young’s shops are among the few crack seed stores left on Oahu that still place their products in the large glass jars.
“It might be pricey, but it tastes better,” Eom said.
The fruits get to soak up the juices, and the flavors get richer, she says.
The U.S. trade deficit with China hit $375.2 billion in 2017.
This new round of tariffs is in response to a year-long investigation completed by the USTR in March that alleges China engaged in unfair trade practices with the U.S.
While Washington and Beijing hammer out their differences, retailers and purveyors of local goodies will be forced to ride out the fight.
Young still has a steady stream of customers, many of whom have been coming since they were kids and now bring their children and grandchildren. In fact, Young says he’s not that worried.
“Out of your control,” he said about the trade feud. “Why worry about it?”
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