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Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Rare Meat

The Cantonese are infamous for their penchant for wild and interesting animal flesh. As a dongbeiren [person from northeast China] friend once put it: "The Cantonese will eat anything that flies, except an aeroplane; anything in the water, except a boat, and; anything with legs, except a table!"

Today, in the wake of China's first confirmed SARS case in 2004, the Guangdong provincial government has begun a process of culling some 10,000 civet cats. This "radical step" — as the World Health Organisation's Dr. Jeffrey Gilbert calls it — threatens to push the trade of wild animal flesh underground.

Of course ‘underground’ in Guangzhou often means 'on the street' as I discovered in my 12 months living there.

On one of my first explorations of the city, in January 2002, I discovered Qing Ping Market — a stone's throw from Shamian Island, a former foreign concession and home to the prestigious White Swan Hotel (which was always bursting at the seams with businessmen and orphan-adopters, but that's another story). In Qing Ping's maze of fetid alleyways I came across a meat market and looked upon the strangest piece of flesh I'd ever seen. On closer inspection I realised it was a domestic cat skinned and ready for the wok. Behind the butcher, white Persian cats were crammed into filth-encrusted cages. Cat meat — according to my neighbour who was practically salivating over my own beloved Chairman Meow — goes great with snake and chicken to create 'Tiger, Dragon and Phoenix' soup.

Nearby I found the dubious pet store alley. For all intents and purposes it is a legitimate row of stores selling 'pedigree' dogs, cats, aquarium fish, iguanas, snakes, fowl and rodents galore. Only in this pet market they shove your furry purchase — in my case a cat named 'Lucky' who died three days later — into a tight string bag like it was a mess of greens.

Skinned pussycats aside, the most disturbing things you're likely to see are barrels of scorpions, turtles, mountains of insects and assorted goodies from the depths of the South China Sea. All of which I'm totally accustomed to now. (I have not returned to Guangzhou since February 2003 when, interestingly, locals were already talking about a killer flu).

As any Old China Hand will tell you Qing Ping of 2002 was nothing like the Qing Ping of 1992. Back then it was not unusual to see monkeys, bears and other wildlife reluctantly queuing for a mallet to the head. I wondered if the market's close proximity to camera-wielding American tourists had forced the wild animal traders to go underground ten years later.

I was wrong. Everything is already out there on the street to see ... and eat.

Another great Cantonese tradition that is familiar to anyone who has visited a 'Chinatown' in the West, is to display fresh produce and seafood on the front doorstep of even the most respectable restaurant.

In Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) the passageway between road and restaurant can be more exhilarating than the meal itself. Aquariums bursting at the gills with an assortment of fish and other water life. Cages of hissing cobras writhing around each other. Terrified, fully-grown pussycats (kittens don't have enough meat). Strangely silent dogs. Once I even saw a live calf tied to the front door of a local soup den, which you can imagine looked completely out of place in China.

I remember the first time I saw a civet cat outside a fancy restaurant adjacent to the Pearl River. The strange little animal, curled up as far from the cobras as he could get, perplexed my friends and me. In fact it wasn't until last year when the poor little fellas were first blamed for the SARS outbreak that I finally knew what that animal was. (Civet cat and turtle, I'm told, make for a great soup).

But the worst was yet to come for me.

One day while making my regular walk between the Friendship Store and home I saw the remains of a tiger splayed on a dirty footpath. Most of the flesh had been sold however the unmistakable markings and shear size of the beast left me without any hesitation that this was the real thing.

Several months later while exploring Beijing Road — the city's bustling shopping precinct — I was drawn to a commotion in a nearby alleyway. Illegal vendors were proudly and openly hocking a wide variety of endangered plants and animals. First I noticed the tiger. This one was much more intact than the previous one. I was offered the paw for an astronomical sum while locals were shelling out as much as 500 yuan, or about US$60, for a few follicles of hair.

Just a few metres along that skanky alleyway, just past the bear bile, I came across a few bits and pieces of what was once a proud and beautiful elephant; my favourite animal of all. Out of respect for local customs (and a desire to stay this side of prison bars) I decided not to express what I was really feeling that day.

Whatever the origins of wildlife for dinner — opinions range from medicinal benefits to Mao-era food shortages — there clearly needs to be some changes.

First and foremost endangered animals must be saved. I asked a Shanghainese friend who seems to know everything about everything if she had ever heard of people eating pandas. "Absolutely not!" she exclaimed. China's commitment to the giant panda has resulted in "a better breeding program [that] improves the outlook for their future in China" (National Zoo). According to Save China's Tigers there are at most 30 Chinese tigers left in the wild. The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are as few as 300 wild elephants remaining in China.

Second, there needs to be stricter guidelines for the raising and selling of non-endangered and domestic species. With the exception of a few dog farms (nothing compared to Korean standards), many animals are either trapped in their natural environment or are unwanted pets. By the time the animals reach the market or restaurant many are clearly unhealthy.

* * *

In Australia you can buy kangaroo meat at your local supermarket. Kangaroos, of which my home country certainly has no shortage, are farmed, slaughtered and stored specifically for human consumption. The theory is: if the meat really tastes good then it should be delivered to the consumer while meeting (boom-boom) the same standards as beef or lamb.

This is not only a discussions about what we eat and why we eat what we eat. Food is an integral part of our culture, and if eating a non-endangered species like civet cat, kangaroo or dog rocks your boat, I am not one to impose my cultural bias. However, given the rise of mad cow disease, bird flu and now SARS, a deeper look into how animals are farmed and slaughtered here and abroad must be addressed.

Remember, you are what you eat.

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