There’s an old Chinese saying: A good neighbor is better than a brother far away.
In times of lockdown, the wisdom of the ancients has shown its eternal relevance.
Neighbors under stay-at-home orders have often banded together to create economies of scale by buying foodstuff in bulk. For that, some leadership is needed, and those rising to the occasion are called tuanzhang, or “group-buying leaders.”
One of them is David Fishman, 32, a new-energy consultant from the United States. He first became involved in group buying when he couldn’t find bread for himself on available apps and discovered that many of his neighbors were in the same boat.
“I went on the social app WeChat to search for ‘Shanghai bread group purchases’ and found a vendor,” he recalled.
After his first bread purchase, which came to nearly US$600, was a success, he tapped his skills as a project manager to extend bulk buying to a wide array of grocery items.
“It’s a task I can manage,” he noted. “I collect the money, make a purchase and organize people to distribute the stuff.”
Fishman is unusual in his role. Most tuanzhang are Chinese. But he speaks fluent Mandarin, so language is no hurdle. He used a survey app for sign-ups to learn what his neighbors wanted to buy. Items with the most votes became shopping list priorities.
In a community of fewer than 10 expats, he has stocked neighbors’ fridges with fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs and beef.
Though the concept of group buying is not new, its execution during lockdown isn’t always easy.
To organize a group purchase, a tuanzhang must understand what neighbors want, find reliable supply channels, distribute product information, set up a spreadsheet to collect purchasing information, and finally must impose closing times for orders.
At the very start, Fishman didn’t know how to place orders on bulk-buying platforms like Kuaituantuan or Pinduoduo.
“We did it in a very manual style — pay the vendor; collect the money,” he said.
His own wish list was for coffee, snacks and fizzy drinks, but the neighbors agreed from the start that frills like soda, cheese and crackers should not be considered until more basic needs were met.
“The building volunteers have been important because they’re the ones who have to carry these purchases,” Fishman pointed out.
“There are limited delivery logistics. So if somebody is delivering soda you ordered to your door, it means they are not delivering vegetables to someone else. We have to respect everyone else to make this system work.”
His neighborhood comprises two tall residential buildings, each with about 300 people. Fishman organizes group buying for his building. About 200 people have now joined his WeChat group for bulk buying, which gives them the purchasing power to meet most minimum order requirements.
Fishman said he has shared his experience in group buying on Twitter with other foreigners, dispensing practical advice on matters such as what to stock up on for potential multi-week lockdowns.
“It’s incredibly fascinating from the perspectives of supply chain, logistics and economics,” he observed. “In a sense, we are in the process of reinventing the food distribution network in Shanghai.”
Li Junnan, a psychology consultant and mother of two, is another tuanzhang.
She initially declined to become a group-buying leader for her neighbors, but changed her mind after finding that the last bread in the fridge had turned moldy.
“I cut off the spots of mildew and made sandwiches for my kids with the last of my precious tomatoes,” Li revealed.
She started out with Kuaituantuan, a popular group-buying platform. She found a bread vendor and posted the product link on her building’s WeChat group.
The first venture was such a success that many of her neighbors joined the purchase group.
“To be honest, I did it for my children at the beginning,” she said, “but then I realized I could make a contribution to helping others during these hard times.”
Li took her responsibility very seriously. She organized the purchases of bread, fried chicken, pre-cooked dishes and even milk tea.
In addition to her digital software, she said her “fantastic four” hardware needs were a computer, a printer, a marking pen and a box cutter.
The only order that failed was one for roast fish. She spent days getting enough orders for a minimum buy, but when she sent the order to the restaurant, she was told there was no more fish left.
The best part of being a tuanzhang, she said, is the sense of compassion, mutual caring and tight social connections.
Her advice to other tuanzhang: “Be thick-skinned and stay calm because you never know which people you might have to work with.”
Li cited the example of a girl who joined her bread-buying group and placed an order for an old couple with hearing disabilities who lived in a nearby neighborhood and didn’t know how to use a smartphone. She texted Li to ask if the deliveryman could take their bread to them.
Technically speaking, a deliveryman is responsible only for taking group-buying orders to the address on the delivery form. Li called the man and appealed to his better instincts.
“He had the right to refuse because it was against regulations,” she noted, “but he said yes right away.”
Li added: “We didn’t get to go out and enjoy the sunshine this spring, but I still felt warmth.
“The warmth of caring people. That might be the most beautiful silver lining to these cloudy times.”