Calif. Debates Ban On Shark Fin Trade

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A proposed ban on shark fin consumption has environmentalists facing off against many Chinese restaurants in California. A state assemblyman says harvesting shark fins is brutal since often the fins are cut off and the living shark is dumped back into the ocean.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Shark fin soup is the centerpiece of many a Chinese-American banquet. The delicacy can go for $1,400 a pound. Now, in California, which has a large Chinese-American population, lawmakers are debating whether to ban the sale of shark fins.

Krissy Clark of member station KQED reports.

KRISSY CLARK: For those of us who did not grow up eating shark fin soup, Wendy Mok will attempt to describe why she loves it in terms a Westerner can understand.

Ms. WENDY MOK: Maybe it's like you thinking of ice cream.

CLARK: Mok lives near Los Angeles now, but some of her fondest memories involve being a kid in Hong Kong, eating the treasured Chinese delicacy from a big, silver bowl.

Ms. MOK: It's eating at, like, big birthday party of your aunt or uncle, or, like, a wedding banquet. You usually dress up to go to these special occasions. So when I think of shark fins even now, I'm like, whoa, yum, yum, yum, yum, yum, yum.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CLARK: But after that comes another feeling.

Ms. MOK: I do feel guilty eating it. I have to, like, really think about that picture, that cruel picture.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

CLARK: A picture courtesy of a shark exhibit Mok visited once at an aquarium in Long Beach, California...

Unidentified Woman: If you're actually over a water window and hearing some slurping sounds, those are...

CLARK: ...where every day at 2 PM, a shark keeper gets on the loudspeaker to give Mok's favorite soup a face.

Unidentified Woman: With very large eyes, a tall dorsal fin and wide, exaggerated pectoral fins, unfortunately, she's an example of a shark that might be finned.

CLARK: Finning is the practice of sawing the fins off a live shark and throwing the amputated creature back into the ocean. But a shark with no fins can't swim, so it sinks to the bottom and slowly suffocates or bleeds to death. Up to 70 million sharks are killed this way each year, and scientists say finning has brought many populations to the brink of collapse.

Which is where California's proposed ban on shark fin comes in, a band that concerns Steve Wong.

Mr. STEVE WONG (Curator, Chinese American Museum): Any time there's legislation to prevent people from partaking in cultural tradition, I think that raises eyebrows.

CLARK: Wong curates the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. The museum has no official position on the proposed ban, but personally, Wong's against it. He says from veal to blue-fin tuna, American plates are filled with troubling foods. And even though a Chinese-American lawmaker co-wrote the bill, Wong says he's noticed the arguments in its favor can quickly get anti-Chinese.

Mr. WONG: There's a lot of vitriol. One comment that I was reading said that the Chinese should be treated the way they treat their animals. Another comment was saying that China should be banned from the world.

CLARK: Wong says the hateful comments remind him of artifacts from an older chapter in Chinese-American history, which he pulls out from his museum's collection: little postcards from the 1860s and '70s printed with racist cartoons. White shop owners advertise with them to promote boycotts of their Chinese-American competitors.

Mr. WONG: And so here is a very stereotypical caricature of a Chinese person fighting a cat to eat a rat. These older stereotypes of what the Chinese were perceived to be, perceive to eat, come bubbling up.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

CLARK: For all the hullabaloo over shark fin soup, the soup itself is pretty basic: a hot broth filled with tiny strands of shark fin collagen that pop in your mouth when you bite them, like bean sprouts.

Mr. CARL CHU (Food Writer): It's interesting how those little strands could cause so much controversy, don't you think?

CLARK: Carl Chu is looking into his steaming bowl at a restaurant in L.A.'s San Gabriel Valley, home to the highest concentration of Chinese-Americans in the country.

CLARK: Chu is a food writer who grew up eating shark fin.

Mr. CHU: The Chinese have a word: yewei. It literally means wild flavors. And it entails the eating of exotic or rare animals, things like shark fin, tigers, civic rats. The Chinese theorize the food ought to come from a wide variety of sources to get as complete a set of nutrients as possible.

CLARK: Regardless of what California does about shark fin, Chu says it's only getting more popular worldwide.

Mr. CHU: As the economy expands in China, you have this burgeoning middle-class. And one way to show how affluent you are is to treat people to banquets and shark fins.

CLARK: And along with all the other complicated emotions that seem to rise like steam from this bowl of shark fin soup, you might add one more: A deep-seated fear about China's rising economic might.

For NPR news, I'm Krissy Clark, in Los Angeles.

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