John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The crab-o-mat is designed to satiate the appetites of boozy, late-night revelers.
Ever get a late-night hankering for crab? That might seem like an odd question, unless you're a Baltimorean or sea otter. But many people in China do develop a craving for crustacean that must be satisfied immediately, to judge from a new vending machine in Hangzhou that dispenses crabs for about $3.27 each.
The machine appeared this week and is loaded with "hairy crabs," a delicacy that's in season right now. The creatures are immobilized with rope ties but very much alive, having been knocked into a dormant state by a potent refrigeration system. Customers deposit their cash and select the most fetching crab, then retrieve it from the machine's bottom and take it home to cook. Or perhaps if they're extra intoxicated, they'll tear into it crudo-style on the street.
The man responsible for bringing the crab-o-mat to Hangzhou, an eastern Chinese city of roughly 9 million residents, operates a seafood shack next door. He shills crabs by day but wanted to give nocturnal revelers an opportunity to indulge themselves. "Crab shops like ours, they generally close at night,” he told a local news outlet. "But what are people to do at night when their stomach starts to feel empty and they want to chow down on a hairy crab and knock back some booze?"
With vending machines around the globe coughing up fishing bait, bread in a can, hardcover books, french fries and mayonnaise, and a cornucopia of other questionable products, it should come as no surprise that China has one for crabs. Indeed, this is not the first to grace the country's street-food scene. In 2010, the media came alive with reports of a robotic provider of hairy-crabs in a subway station in Nanjing, about 170 miles northwest of Hangzhou. (It is pictured above.)
Allegedly the first in China, that machine sold about 200 living crabs a day and came with a guarantee of three free crabs if a customer received a deceased one. The technology is reportedly the brainchild of Shi Tuanjie, a lake-crab tycoon, who Quartz reports came up with idea after discovering a crab "hiding under his sofa." So that's another bit of news – China has house crabs.
Whereas Shi's get-your-crab-alive-or-the-next-one's-free promise is certainly generous, it's not clear whether these machines offer recompense if they don't actually spit out a hairy crab. The animals are so heavily sought-after that there's a booming criminal enterprise for "bootleg" crabs, says Shanghaiist:
Each fall, hairy crab pirates duplicate China's most coveted crustacean: the Yangcheng Lake hairy crab, an expensive delicacy prized for its sweet, delicate meat.
Unfortunately for the Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab Association, shanzai crabs are here to stay, unlike shanzai phones which are on their way out: the counterfeit market for hairy crabs is ten times greater than that for authentic hairy crabs. Just ask local crabber Xing, who says, "Everything is being counterfeited. There's nothing you can do about it. And you can't control it."
The problem is so pervasive, according to Shanghaiist, that wholesalers have started using lasers to burn serial numbers into their catch's shells.
This is the 2010 vending machine, which operates in a similar manner to the one in Hangzhou:
Top image: The first crab-vending machine in China, installed in Nanjing in 2010. (Sean Yong / Reuters)