Far from Purrfect

You wouldn't eat me, would you?

You wouldn't eat me, would you?

After researching this piece, I have since stopped eating kebab skewers in Shanghai or any other street meat of similar variety.  If you would like to continue blissfully gnawing down street food in China, I suggest you read this at your own discretion.

The division of life styles that continues to swing the pendulum of the pet versus food debate can be clearly defined by the shifting tastes of China’s ever-urbanizing population. Cats, in particular, have managed to strike a sentimental chord among pet lovers and those who deem animals with characteristics similar to Hello Kitty simply too cute to eat. On the other side, not everyone is so picky. And, though snatchers have given the trade a sinister name, business has been good.

A production by amateur filmmaker Guo Ke, San Hua (三花) takes a first-time, and often macabre, look at China’s cat-meat industry. The 68-minute documentary, which first held audiences in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou at the end of July, goes undercover to explore the dark secrets of the trade — from cat snatchers in Shanghai to cat skin peddlers in Hebei.

The bands of cat snatchers that prey on Shanghai’s streets have incited the most vehement condemnation. Reported sightings of men luring house cats from behind fences into cages with dead birds have rattled the hearts of pet lovers. It’s no wonder why cats in Shanghai seem so timid of passerby.

San Hua opens with a group of infuriated Shanghainese women whom catch up to a truck loaded with hundreds of cats the drivers claim are all wild. Impassioned and beset with rage, they accuse the men of stealing the cats, but receive little help from the police.

Grieving pet owners and volunteers, the latter of which invest a large portion of their “meager income” to feeding forlorn felines, stand against a bustling business of traders that often support whole families with their income. Cat-mongers pay an average of RMB15 to 20 a cat. A good haul has the potential to bring in upwards of RMB5,000.

In Southern China’s Guangdong Province, where a great deal of the cats collected in Shanghai and other urban centers end up, people are not so fastidious. “Cat meat is a common dish in Guangzhou,” says Guo Ke. Cats collected in Suzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing and other urban areas find themselves turned into such well-known local delicacies as cat hot pot, live-boiled cat and dragon-fighting-tiger, a dish the combines snake and cat meat.

Disturbing images in San Hua of cat heads being bludgeoned with a cleverer for cat soup and accounts of chefs describing the first time they drowned a cat alive are effective in pushing Guo Ke’s stance. Analyze the continuous debate of KFC’s cruelty to chickens, a company with major pull in Asia markets, and similar parallels can be drawn.  The death of animals is a major part of many of our lives, and in China people simply don’t distinguish the difference.

“You eat a fish or chicken, you’re stripping them of their life. It’s the same,” one patron of a cat restaurant in Guangdong claims. Table taboos of the west, when applied to provinces in China, can be perceived as regional discrimination.

Dog has long been eaten throughout northern China and the Korean Peninsula for its believed ability to warm and invigorate the body during cold winters. South Korea has taken steps to see that the only dogs that are eaten are those that were farmed under sanitary conditions. This is clearly the legislation that China needs.

Legal experts from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences petitioned Beijing for the ban of cat and dog meat in September last year, but met with little success. Those within the trade believe that barring them will only liven up illegal trafficking.

Although eating wild animals brings forth a slew of sanitary issues, many cat connoisseurs consider the dish for its cost.  Back in 2006, the Shanghai Small Animal Association conducted DNA tests on twelve Xinjiang kebab stands in Shanghai and discovered two of them were passing off cat as mutton in efforts to reduce costs.

In Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the uncouth conditions of Chicago’s meat-packing industry, depicted through the struggling eyes of Jurgis Rudkus, galvanized public opinion. At the time, America was industrializing in similar ways to how China is today. And, as Sinclair noted, money took precedence.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

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