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Shark Fin Soup: A Symbol of Modern China



Shark finning is creating irreversible damage to our oceans and our planet, it is damaging shark populations to such an extent that 30% of shark species are at threat of extinction and entire ecosystems may become affected.  One of the primary reasons for this is the demand for a tasteless delicacy; shark fin soup.  Taking Tangshan a developing Chinese city in Hebei province as an example, it is possible to shed light on why there is demand for shark fins, and how the problem of shark finning will surely only get worse!  Rightfully a large emphasis is often placed on the brutal practice of how shark fins are caught.  However it seems just as important to look at the problem from a Chinese perspective.  How can the mass depletion of shark numbers be translated to, and respected by, the most populous country on our planet?!                Stepping onto the Xinhua road and being struck by the smog drifting over the hill from the nearby power station.  Seeing a construction site on each side of the street.  You are automatically aware that you are in China. The China that is growing and expanding at a break-neck speed, but also the China that still practises age old customs and serves up ancient dishes and delicacies to its ever growing elite.           Tangshan embodies the ethos of Modern China.  After being destroyed by a tragic earthquake in 1976, it has since been rebuilt into a model Industrial city.  Just one and half hours from Beijing, its industry is focussed around coal, chemicals, textiles and car manufacturing.  The population of over seven million is increasingly flocking towards the city for a share of the 'New Money' which seems to flow through a pipeline from Beijing, wider China and even the world!               Tangshan's main road seems to have been plucked out of an episode of Top Gear with brand new super cars lining the car parks of shiny new shopping malls.  Into the picture of Chinese expansion comes the issue of fine dining.  The industrialists who meet to discuss the future plans for Tangshan seek to show off new Chinese wealth.  This often takes the form of ancient, obscure but most importantly status enhancing dishes.               Granted Tangshan is a city close to the coast and seafood dishes are a key part of their sustanance, however the array of dishes is astounding.  A short walk down the Xinhua road you come to the Kailuan Seafood restaurant, owned by the Kailuan mining company. Tanks in the window display an array of shellfish, lobster and different crustaceans. The first page of the menu presents a plate of sea cucumbers, with little accompaniment, placed on a bed of ice.  Next are the two most popular dishes, according to the waitress at the front desk.  Firstly; four dried seahorses, with a spicy broth.  And then the infamous shark fin soup, served with a mollusc and a chicken broth.  Through some gesturing and translation it appears you receive a minuscule amount of shark fin for the 88 Rmb ($14 US) price tag, but you can have more, if you pay more!  What immediately strikes you about this dish how small, almost feeble it is.  Granted it is seen as a delicacy, but it makes the slaughter of so many sharks seem even more futile.               The next stop on the Xinhua road is the Kailuan Hotel and its adjoining Dailoo Seafood Restaurant.  The main restaurant has a host of tables surrounded by fish tanks full of various fish, molluscs etc... Upstairs is a banquet hall, which often hosts weddings and other major functions.  Last weekend was the International Mine Rescue Conference.  Turning the corner toward the kitchen there is a large cabinet and behind the glass is the unmistakable fin shape!  This dried fin was placed behind the glass as a trophy.  And it was huge.  This fin was over 1 metre in length.  It is hard not to be in awe of the shark it once belonged to.  The head waiter boasted that it was real, he didn't know the value.  The Kailuan Restaurant does serve shark fin soup, a small rice dish of the soup would cost 50 Rmb ($8 US).                 The final stop is the Grand Hotel Nanhu, a symbol of new Tanghsan and developing China.  Its neon lit frontage beams across the city.  This is a hotel designed to house China's new elite.  The Industrialists who will visit Tangshan, and maybe even drive off with a new Audi from the glitzy showroom across the road.  Having been open just two months, the marble columns which dominate the lobby create a very grand entrance.  Off to the right of the lobby is the exclusive restaurant.  As you enter the restaurant an entire wall has been transformed into an aquarium, it houses six juvenile black tip sharks and two large grouper.  Yongjun Di the Swiss and British educated manager of the hotel was very keen boast about his new pets;10,000 Rmb ($1600 US) each.  On the opposite wall is another cabinet.  This houses two massive fins as a centrepiece, but then had almost 20 smaller fins littered around the display.  Another status symbol, possibly 20 or more sharks dead for decoration.  A browse through the Grand Hotel's menu presents abalone, shell fish of every variety and then the five page 'SHARK FIN' section.  The signature dish is a whole braised fin in a broth for 599 Rmb ($95).  There is then a long list of different soups, broths and meat dishes with a shredded shark fin accompaniment ranging between 300-500 Rmb ($45-80 US).  The hotel manager said that shark fins were a very popular and increasingly sought after dish and that 'they taste exactly like glass rice noodles'.                 Shark fin soup is clearly not accessible to all Chinese people.  Putting it into perspective unskilled workers earn between 1000-3000 Rmb per month.  The Vanguard chain of supermarkets sell shredded shark fins in a dedicated cabinet, away from the rest of the seafood.  For just 38grams of shredded fins it would cost almost one weeks wage for a low earning worker.   At most weddings it is often replaced with the cheaper alternative; chicken broth with glass noodles.  Some restaurants even serve a broth with rice noodles and pass it off as shark fin soup, or fail shark fin.  It is supposedly so difficult to tell the difference, more evidence of how unnecessary this delicacy is.                 China's new found wealth is spreading.  Private enterprise and an explosion in consumerism has brought about an emerging middle class of wealthy Chinese.  A recent global wealth survey crowned the one millionth Chinese millionaire, and more millionaires are appearing in China than anywhere else in the world.  Most Chinese dismiss the idea of eating obscure seafood dishes in high end restaurants as something reserved for the rich.  Yet at the same time they aspire to earn more money, to be rich.                   The way Tangshan's and China's 'New Money' is being spent is the problem.  A foreign worker who has lived in Tangshan for the last eight years describes how radically the city has changed.  As little as five years ago there were hardly any cars, everyone wore the same bland grey or blue coats.  Now western fashion is ever present and the six o'clock rush hour is a cacophony of horns, cars and buses are five abreast on the three lane road.  Construction sites appear on every corner.  Curiously the investment in new housing blocks seems to lag behind.  The priority appears to be spending money on overt expressions of wealth.  For example a Chinese work colleague recently came into the office wearing a nice new suit jacket.  "Nice jacket" I said "... but you should take the label off".  Apparently it is a fashion to leave labels on new clothes; "so everyone can see the designer name... and the price!!!" she said.   Improving ones status amongst you peers seems to be the priority.  The most extreme example of this new opulence is eight ivory tusks on sale in the Tangshan department store, one is almost 80 centimetres in length, placed on a carved wooden plinth and costs 85,000 Rmb ($14,000 US).                   Therefore it is easy to see why shark fin soup is only likely to increase in popularity.  This dish is not bought for taste or for any ancient medicinal values, it is bought as a symbol of wealth and status, bought because I can!  In many ways it symbolises the ever expanding wealth in twentieth century China.  As Tangshan's elite grows, hosts more family weddings or invites more business partners to the city there is little evidence to suggest that shark fin soup will not be on their menu.                   There appears to be little regard or appreciation of the wider impacts this dish has on the worlds oceans.  China is living for today, Tangshan's current growth is fuelled by a massive power station and factories which churn out a thick smog onto city streets.  There is little regard for long term well being.  The preservation of the ocean is an even more alien concept.  Conservation groups are trying to remove the aura surrounding shark fin soup.  A recent Wildaid advert staring retired basketball star Yao Ming, who is revered across China, is a ploy to dissuade wealthy Chinese from ordering shark fins.  Although it is questionable how this message can be broadcast to the hundreds of millions of the Chinese elite.  The more cosmopolitan cities such as Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing, which are more open to western influence are likely to receive the message.  Some Beijing restaurants have already banned the dish.  However developing cities, who have very little interaction with the west and have little access to uncensored information are far less likely to receive or respect such messages.                       Tangshan is classed as a prefecture level city, it has a population of seven million. There a several hundred prefecture level cities in China, and a population nearing1.4 billion.  If the trends followed in Tangshan are mirrored across China, and all economic data suggests they are, then wealth and the Chinese middle classes will continue to grow.  So too will demand for goods which express this new found Chinese wealth - few things are more effective at this than shark fin soup.  
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