Every westerner who travels to modern-day China comes back with some serious stories to tell, and after a three-day excursion across much of South China several years ago, I’m no exception.
Along with the incredibly vast, endless, seemingly never-ending panorama of sprawling, brand-name factories flanked by uniformly sterile, concrete dormitories for workers, that region of China is a place where there’s nary a square foot of land not being utilized as a living space, for commercial activities or as gardens or fish ponds crammed into impossibly tiny backyard plots.
That’s because there are millions and millions of people jammed onto those impossibly small yards, and they need food—lots of food—to maintain their existence.
As a result, the Chinese diet includes lots of “items” Americans would find revolting or just bizarre. While we strolled through the city of Guangzhou, I saw raw carcasses hanging in vendors’ stalls in the “wet markets” that I was at a loss to identify what animal they used to be.
Monkey? Goat? Some sort of feline? It was tough to tell, yet the meat was moving briskly as throngs of residents moved through the marketplace.
At one small stand, we saw a plastic kid’s swimming pool, where an elderly woman was poking around inside with a pair of chopsticks. Curious, we all leaned in for a closer look, only to realize that the pool was filled with thousands of angry, swarming scorpions, which she was picking up in batches of three or four at a time and deftly dumping them into paper bags.
“Soup,” our Chinese host explained. “They make a great condiment in soup.”
Along with mystery meat and live scorpions, the market also offered frogs, snakes and reptiles—not for pets, for dinner. Even more shocking, one stall contained dozens of stacked cages filled with barking puppies, a scene our host quickly steered us away from, since once again, those cute little furballs were destined to be on someone’s menu that evening.
Exotic and endangered
The Chinese appetite for foods most Westerners consider “outside the mainstream,” shall we say, is problematic, and not just because of the potential of zoonotic diseases—like SARS—being spread from wildlife to livestock to people but also because 1.6 billion people are eating their way through some seriously endangered species.
Here’s an example: According to the South China Post’s website, customs officers in Hong Kong last week seized more than $8 million worth of smuggled seahorse and crocodile meat being brought into the city. A 52-year-old truck driver was arrested at a checkpoint hauling more than 1,200 pounds of dried crocodile meat and some 680 pounds of dried seahorses, along with birds’ nests, dried deer tails and dried geckos—all stashed in a shipping container marked “Deer Antlers.”