The novel Monkey King by Timothy Mo, set in Hong Kong in the 1950’s, is a rollicking ride through the folk ways and family ways of Hong Kong. In one scene, two Cantonese men have taken a Brit out for dinner and entertainment afterwards. The Brit has no idea that they are befriending him in order to set him up for mischief later, but suffice it to say that the entire evening has been carefully orchestrated to show the guy a good time and win his trust. For entertainment after dinner, they suspect a brothel might affront the man’s British sensibilities, so the Cantonese men decide to take him instead to a menagerie inside a local park. At the menagerie, there is a little monkey that is supposed to do tricks. It is tired and doesn’t want to cooperate, and so its owners and local people begin prodding and poking it with sticks. The miserable creature must hop in order to avoid the pokes. The pleasant mood of the evening is destroyed when the British man goes beserk over treatment of the monkey. He loses his cool, grabs some of the sticks, and breaks them in half. Speaking in Cantonese to each other so that they can’t be understood by the foreigner, the two Cantonese men discuss their bewilderment at this outburst. They ultimately hypothesize that since British people believe they are descended from monkeys, the Brit must be upset because he thinks they have abused one of his ancestors. They never "get it" that the Brit was concerned for the welfare of the creature simply because of his value system. The scene in the novel is hilarious precisely because neither side "gets it."
This aspect of Chinese culture is something that I too, like the Brit, find troubling. I could rationalize it all kinds of ways. But the simple, bottom line is, that Chinese culture in general is oblivious to animal suffering. This is nowhere worse manifested than at the meat market. In a land without much refrigeration, freshness of meat is an absolute necessity. Chickens and fish are killed in the market while one waits. This isn’t unique to China, either. One time David took a Korean customer to the customer’s favorite restaurant and they got octopus sushi. The little octopus tentacles were writhing and trying to cling to the chopsticks. And one time on a Japanese cooking show, I watched as a fish was prepared into sushi, and then an entire assortment of sushi was laid out on a platter dcoratively on a platter on top of the original fish, so that there was a fish head at one end and a tail at the other. As I watched on TV, the table decoration, at this point a mostly disembodied head and tail, started twitching its head and tail. I guess that means it’s really fresh.
Last year, I thought I could take advantage of having Sophie with me at the market one day, to explain to the fish monger that I wanted my fish dead before they cleaned it. I picked out my fish. Before I could say "Jack Sprat," the fishmonger had laid it on the table and whacked it good on the head, so that it was quivering but paralyzed, and then proceeded to scale it. I asked Sophie, "Please tell him quickly to cut off the head before he cleans it." She turned and looked at me very slowly, puzzled. "Why?" she asked. "Because I don’t want him to suffer." (All this while the fish guy is doing his work.) "Oh," she replies, "He works very fast, so the fish won’t suffer." They also think I’m crazy and wasteful because I throw away the head, which is the best part for making soup.
Just last month, I was walking past the fish rows, and there is fish on ice. They have these huge fish that are sold off in chunks by the half kilo. There is one fish laying there with the top fillet removed, so you are looking at the part where the bones have the "fishbone" shape. The head is still attached, and I notice that I can see the heart, which is beating. I became light headed. But I recently heard even worse. A British woman told me she heard a chicken screaming. She looked over, and it was being plucked, alive. Then, they gutted the chicken, which was was still screaming. The screams didn’t stop until they cut her throat, the last thing. I guess it’s very fresh meat.
This is in a city where live goats, pigs, pigeons are sold at many food markets. David says one time he was traveling on business and stayed the night at a hotel in a small village where they had a restaurant. There was a small goat there that only had one leg. He went on to where he was going for business and then returned two days later. Two days later, the goat was missing another leg. No wonder we don’t eat much meat here.
Of course, one also sees beggars with fresh wounds that passersby are also oblivious to. The common myth is that beggars are peasants who haven’t been able to make a living on the farm, so they paid someone to maim them so they can make a living by begging. I’m sure there is some bit of truth to this. It’s a known fact that organized crime runs many of the beggar rings and that beggars often have pimps just like prostitutes do. But, I don’t think that explains it all. Given the lack of safety standards, there must be many industrial accidents, and given lack of social safety net, I’m sure those people are not cared for by worker’s comp etc.
I’m normally able to walk by beggars, but there’s one that’s stuck in my memory. He was laid out in front of a bank, face down. He looked like he could only drag himself along prostrate on the ground. He couldn’t even sit up to beg. Most beggars have a blanket, but this man had nothing, he was laying directly face down on the pavement. He had clothes, but they were filthy and very worn. I wonder if he came to the city, was injured, and had a family somewhere that he couldn’t get back to. I walked by him, but that night I determined to go back. The next day, however, he was gone. I haven’t seen him since. I wonder if he died.
Last but not least, you hear about the practice of eating dogs and cats. Neither of these animals is eaten routinely, but when people are hungry, not much is safe. On a recent high school Habitat Build, the kids went to a village that had been racked by floods. The villagers were so starved for protein that they regretfully resorted to eating their watch dogs. Dog meat is also eaten in cold weather as a sort of tonic. I’ve also seen cats sold by the half kilo in restaurants. But generally speaking, Chinese seem to love their pet dogs. It’s not unusual to see a small dog being carried in a pocketbook or a bicycle basket. One time, I was in a restaurant and heard a small yapping coming from the kitchen. I was mortified! I turns out, it was a little pet sitting in it’s owner’s lap at a table near the kitchen. I was so relieved.
Perhaps another way to view it is the pure utilitarian and instrumental view of the world. Here is an article that illustrates that mentality:
August 2, 2006, Chicago Sun Times
China kills 50,000 dogs in campaign against rabies
SHANGHAI, China — China slaughtered 50,000 dogs in a government- ordered crackdown after three people died of rabies, sparking unusually pointed criticism in state media Tuesday and an outcry from animal rights activists.
Health experts said the brutal policy pointed to deep weaknesses in the health-care infrastructure in China, where only 3 percent of dogs are vaccinated against rabies and more than 2,000 people die of the disease each year.
The five-day slaughter in Yunnan province in southwestern China ended Sunday and spared only military guard dogs and police canine units, state media reported.
Dogs being walked were seized from their owners and beaten to death on the spot, the Shanghai Daily newspaper reported. Led by the county police chief, killing teams entered villages at night creating noise to get dogs barking, then beat the animals to death, the reports said.
Owners were offered 63 cents per animal to kill their own dogs before the teams were sent in, they said.
The killings were widely discussed on the Internet, with both legal scholars and animal rights activists criticizing them as crude and cold-blooded. The World Health Organization said more emphasis needed to be placed on rabies prevention.
The official newspaper Legal Daily blasted the killings as an "extraordinarily crude, cold-blooded and lazy way for the government to deal with epidemic disease."
PETA CALLS FOR BOYCOTT
"Wiping out the dogs shows these government officials didn’t do their jobs right in protecting people from rabies in the first place," the newspaper, published by the central government’s Politics and Law Committee, said in an editorial in its online edition.
The killings prompted calls for a boycott of Chinese products from the activist group People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Officials defended the slaughter in a region where about 360 of the 200,000 residents suffered dog bites this year, with three people reportedly dying of rabies, including a 4-year-old girl.
Unlike in the West, where dogs have long been cherished, dogs have rarely had an easy time in China. Dog meat is eaten throughout the country, revered as a tonic in winter and a restorer of virility in men.
About 70 percent of rural households keep dogs, according to the Chinese Center of Disease Control and Prevention, and increased rates of dog ownership have been tied to a surge in the number of rabies cases. It said there were 2,651 reported deaths from the disease in 2004, the last year for which data was available.
Copyright CHICAGO SUN-TIMES 2006