Shark fin: cultural delicacy or animal abuse?

Shark-fin lovers in the San Gabriel Valley rushed to Chinese grocery stores over the weekend for their last taste of the delicacy, World Journal (世界日报)reports. The state's shark-fin ban took effect Monday, and the importation, trade, and possession of shark fin in California is now illegal. When Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 376 into law in October 2011, a student of Chinese background explored the debate surrounding shark fin: is it a cultural delicacy that should be protected or an abusive practice? 

Originally published Oct. 10, 2011:

shark fin soup | www.flickr.com/mookies

The waitress at the elegant Shanghai restaurant opened the lid of my bowl, releasing a sweet aroma. Through my fogged glasses I saw the semi-transparent shark fin gleaming in chicken broth. The fine food, a treat from my father’s work acquaintance, was the epitome of delicacy.

That was my first taste of shark fin, three years ago in China where I lived for eight years. I probably won’t have it again for a while. Last weekend Governor Brown signed into law a bill that will make it unlawful to import, trade, and possess shark fin in California, the state where I now live.

The law, introduced by an Assemblyman of Chinese background, has divided Chinese-Americans about whether it’s our cultural heritage or an abusive, outdated practice of removing the fin from a shark. Politicians; restaurant owners, including many in the San Gabriel Valley; and advocacy organizations have all weighed in. But I and other students of Chinese background with whom I have talked have felt removed from this debate. Although shark-fin soup is a classic in Chinese gastronomy, it’s not a dish that had a large impact on many of us growing up. A symbol of wealth and social status, the extremely expensive delicacy is only served on very special occasions such as family feasts, business dinners, and weddings.

The argument for banning shark fins is that it is a brutal practice where generally the shark is definned and left to die. I’m not sure when I first learned this, but the practice was not an issue in China in my experience. For the Chinese community in the United States, however, I have found that there is a lot more awareness and concern about the practice. In recent months, among the most vocal proponents for the ban has been Senator Paul Fong, who introduced the bill. He explained to the Pasadena Star-News that “cultural practices change and the Chinese culture will survive with or without shark fins."

Los Angeles Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold, who has a reputation for eating most anything, also supports the ban. Gold recognized that “Chinese Americans are being asked to give up something real, with many years of tradition.” But he supported the ban and believed the threat of species extinction outweighed the costs, pointing out that shark fin soup “has already becoming passe, especially among young Chinese.” I could not agree more; none of my friends are a fan of shark-fin soup. “I will not order it on my own, if ever,” several of them told me.

The author, lying down left, eats out with friends in ShanghaiThat said, for many of the young Chinese I know, even though they think eating shark fin is wrong, are skeptical of a statewide ban. “Individually choosing not to eat shark fin is one thing, but officially making a state wide ban is another,” Kelly Wang, who is a friend and also a student from Shanghai, told me. She felt the bill could be an intrusion to one’s freedom. So does my 90-year-old grandma in Taiwan. I too am suspicious about the necessity of having a legal ban, since California has already made many regulations addressing to the environmental and humane concerns of the practice.

Many politicians of Chinese background and restaurant owners have gone much further in opposition to the ban, saying that it would take away their cultural heritage and business. World Journal (世界日报) reported that several food unions, health foods interest groups, and Chinese restaurants gathered and protested against the bill. The head of the US Asian Food Union said she disagreed with the cruel killing of shark, but one should not execute a cultural delicacy because of the wrong doing of the minority.

"Why is it people on the Westside and in Beverly Hills can (continue to eat) shark steak and my people in the San Gabriel Valley can't enjoy a product five inches away from the shark?” Assemblyman Mike Eng, D-Monterey Park asked in a Pasadena Star-News article. He said the bill unfairly targeted a specific community by selectively banning one part of the animal while ignoring other types of shark consumption. Eng did not believe in the bill’s environmental aim either. He challenged it “did nothing to help the 27 species of sharks in California listed as endangered or vulnerable because it didn’t address the 20,000 or so sharks killed here each year.”

But these vocal critics of the ban don’t reflect the young Chinese people I know in Los Angeles. “Culture has to adapt with the current situation. And the current situation is that we are killing nature and depleting the nature,” my cousin Dangi Chu said. “It’s kind of human nature to adapt to things, so I feel like it’s silly to say it’s a cultural tradition and you have to hold on to it even though. It doesn’t make sense anymore.” Next time I’m at a fancy dinner with my father, I will try and resist the delicacy, something I never would have considered doing before my time here.

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