Mon, Mar 07, 2005 - Page 11 News List

Magic bean-maker Chen fills demand for blessings

CANNED LOVE A love of plants propelled Chen Zhen-che into the canned bean plant business; however, the counterfeiters have been forcing him to stay competitive

By Kevin Chen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Chen Zhen-che is the founder of Yu Chyu Co and the inventor of the canned plants business. Beans with messages grow inside the can and the plants need no watering.

PHOTO: GEORGE TSORNG, TAIPEI TIMES

The 34-year-old Chen Zhen-che (陳振哲) is the brains behind the hot-selling "Magic Bean" canned plants that Japanese toymaker Takara Co marketed last month to capitalize on the selling frenzy of Valentine's Day in Japan.

Unlike other canned plants, Chen's cans are filled with a bacteria-free, chemical substitute for soil.

The plants sprout in five to seven days and have sweet messages on the bean's surface.

"People were curious about the beans, and a product like this usually meets with a high demand in the market," Chen said in a recent interview at his small factory in the Hsiko Township of Chiayi County in southern Taiwan.

The well-wishing messages are "Happiness," "Good luck," "I love you," or "I miss you," featured on one side of the bean such as a graphic of an arrow piercing two hearts on the other.

"Few people believe the product is actually made here in Taiwan; they think it is imported from Japan or Korea," Chen said with pride.

The son of a farmer, Chen grew up in Chiayi and was a farmer, hair stylist and even ran a small wholesale stationery company.

But Chen says he always had a passion for flora and plants.

Chen said he first embarked on the idea of developing canned plants about five years ago.

He selected different plant species, put them inside a can and sealed them in a vacuum.

Then he distributed them at night markets and on the Internet.

The market response was very positive as little effort is required to take care of the plants, Chen said.

His plants have a high budding rate, and inside the can the fertilizer has been allocated according to the nutrition the plant will need to grow.

"What the customers need to do is read the directions on temperature, sunlight and water. Then they can observe the plant's budding, growth and blossoming in stages," he said.

His company Yu Chyu Co (羽鉅) has developed a lineup of 43 different plant products, ranging from carnations and sunflowers to lavender and tulips.

His overseas markets include Europe, South Korea, Japan, the US and China. Japan and Europe remain the biggest markets for Chen's products, while demand from China and South Korea has been increasing substantially.

But Chen has faced competition from rivals. In 2002, Chen got the idea of presenting plants with blessings on them.

"I thought of sculpting the messages on the bean. I thought of writing and even tried to iron the messages on it ... I tried every possible way you could think of to make it happen but I failed," Chen recalled.

After a year of trying, he at last selected the swordbean (Canavalia gladiata) as the most suitable bean, and found ways to inscribe the messages using a laser beam.

Chen named it the `Jack bean' after the fairy tale story `Jack and the beanstalk,' in hopes that whomever owns the bean will be as lucky as Jack is in the tale.

But in reality, Chen wasn't as lucky as he thought. His company faced great losses as a result of an increased bout of counterfeiting in China and South Korea.

"There are many fake `magic bean' products in those two countries," Chen said.

"For instance, we applied for a patent on our canned plants with the Chinese authorities in 1999, but we saw some Chinese companies had registered patents for the fake products there in 2002," he said.

Worst of all, several of his previous distributors in China later turned out to be his competitors after they learned how to use a laser beam in order to inscribe the messages.

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