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March 17, 2010

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Satisfying Shanghai's palate for organics

American Steve Liang's family ran a Chinese restaurant in Kansas. Now he's running a high-end organic produce business that delivers to homes and restaurants around the city. Sam Riley reports.

American Steve Liang knows more about what appears on your dinner plate and how it got there than many other people in the city.

The former IT professional decided to get out from in front of the computer screen and pursue his passion for food in 2008 when he began working for a start-up company supplying organic food in Shanghai.

In March last year Liang and a group of investors set up FIELDS, a company that delivers more than 300 high-end products, including organic fresh fruit and vegetables, butter, milk, eggs and rice, to homes and restaurants around the city.

Aiming to provide healthy, clean and safe produce direct from the farm to the consumer, Liang has spent the last two years working with small producers around Shanghai but also as far away as the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Shandong and Yunnan provinces.

"We try to find really good stuff and then work with local people," Liang says.

Liang's alarm clock is also set to odd hours and he gets up as early as 1am to go to the city's markets to find premium produce.

A committed Buddhist and yoga enthusiast, Liang says he tries to apply aspects of his beliefs to his business.

"We are honest and pay a fair price to our suppliers and we have found that good things flow from that. They will say, 'Hey, we know a lady who has great eggs,' and then we find she also has good free-range chickens, for example," he says.

"We also take this further and try to provide safe environmentally friendly packaging that is biodegradable."

Liang grew up in Kansas, United States. His father's family is originally from Beijing and his mother's side of the family once called Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, home.

Growing up with the traditional food culture of a Chinese family fostered Liang's interest in food.

"I have always been a foodie and my dad had a Chinese restaurant when I was growing up," he says.

"My food memories are always the special occasions and we would always try to have hot pot or having dumplings, mantou or baozi (steamed buns) and these types of northern dishes with my grandparents."

At first Liang did not seek a career in the food and beverage industry, but instead studied electrical engineering in college and later went on to work in telecommunications and IT.

It was while working in telecommunications that Liang made his first serious foray into China in 1998.

Posted in Henan Province, Liang says he gained a deeper understanding of Chinese cooking and produce.

"Since I was 22 I have been exploring food, trying to understand what makes a particular culture's food special and trying to find out what constitutes good food," he says.

It wasn't until 2001 that he returned to China as a trailing spouse, this time working in IT for UT Starcom.

"I did the corporate life and hated it - it was a big 14-year blob," he says. "I don't know what I did, it was a lot of wandering and a lot of angst."

In typical Shanghai fashion, it was in the midst of a personal crisis - his marriage was ending, his career was at the crossroads and he wasn't sure he wanted to stay in China - that Liang met his future business partners.

The launch of FIELDS resulted from a fortuitous meeting with some American private equity investors who were interested in starting a business focused on providing top-quality produce to Shanghai.

At first all Liang supplied was Asahi brand milk and strawberries but in a little over a year the product list has grown to more than 250 products.

This covers a wide range of groceries and shopping trolley items from vegetables, fruits and cheeses to meats and seafoods.

Along with basic gourmet items, FIELDS also supplies chocolate, high-end coffee and teas and a small selection of wines.

FIELDS recently branched out into personal care products such as shampoos, essential oils and facial creams.

Liang's team delivers produce daily around the city and he says there is a growing demand for top-quality produce, so the consumer knows how the particular item is grown using clean, safe farming methods.

"Food is a very powerful thing in Buddhism. It is medicine and it tunes the body so it has to be treated with respect and honored," he says.

Anyone wanting more information can visit the FIELDS Website at

Steve Liang

Nationality: USA

Age: 39

Profession: Founder of FIELDS


Self-description: Quiet, introverted, FIELDS.

Favorite place: My home.

Strangest sight: People walking in their pajamas and slippers on the streets in the evenings.

Worst experience: Pollution, and seeing old Shanghai buildings being torn down piece by piece.

Motto for life: Peace, karma, love, yoga.

How to improve Shanghai: Less smoking, less littering, less pollution.

Advice to newcomers: Shanghai is a great place to be. Beneath the glitz there is culture, lots of great people and amazing stories.


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