30 September 2013

To Eat or Not to Eat 吃還是不吃

That is the question.

Exotic animals and their body parts have always been an integral part of Chinese cuisine. They run the gamut from the pangolin (穿山甲) and the Himalayan palm civet (果子狸) to bear’s paw and swallow’s spit. In terms of universal appeal and indispensability, few things come close to the venerable shark’s fin soup.

The tradition of making soups using dorsal and pectoral fins from tiger sharks can be traced all the way back to the Ming imperial kitchen some 400 years ago. At any given Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong, whether it is a wedding banquet or a corporate function, a feast is not a feast without the obligatory soup served on a twelve-course menu between the steamed grouper and the crispy chicken. Omitting the soup, on the other hand, will not only disappoint and offend guests, but also stir up rumors of financial ruin shrouding the host for years to come. Contrary to common belief in the West, shark’s fin soup is much more than a luxury. It is as much a part of the Cantonese culture as it is a social statement. It is our way of life.

It is a social statement


The debate over the ecological impact and political correctness of eating shark’s fin first gained traction with the international press in the early 2000s. In the years since, with mounting pressure from environmentalist groups to protect other endangered sea creatures like the blue-fin tuna and the Siberian sturgeon, the question of whether restaurants should continue serving our favorite soup has taken on new urgency. The whole debate got under my skin because, on a selfish level, I genuinely enjoy the soup. Those precious shreds of cartilage floating in a delicious golden brown broth always bring back fond childhood memories of accompanying my parents to a glamorous Chinese banquet lifted straight from a Zhang Yimou (張藝謀) movie set. On a more altruistic level, I was miffed because a slice of our cultural heritage is under siege. Once again, the Chinese ingenuity that turns the most improbable of ingredients into haute cuisine is being vilified as third-world savagery. It made me want to order the soup even more just as an act of defiance against Western prejudices.

Every guest expects the soup


That was until the ghastly reality of finning hit me like a ton of bricks, shattering all romanticism and sentimentality surrounding our culinary tradition. Look up the phrase “shark finning” on YouTube and you will find hundreds of graphic videos of fishermen hacking the fins off live sharks before the finless things are unceremoniously tossed back into the bloodied ocean to die a slow death. You would think humanity has made enough progress not to tolerate such cruelty even to animals. It makes me wonder why finning remains legal in most international waters when equally condemnable acts like tusking elephants and beheading gorillas are banned under conservation laws. 

After the gruesome rite of slicing and chopping, heaps of harvested fins are then fork-lifted from the trawler and taken to markets by the truckload, fetching as much as US$500 per kilogram. That’s enough financial incentive for fishermen in impoverished Latin America and Africa to switch from fishing to much more lucrative finning. But because only 30 out of 440 species of sharks have fins that are suitable for soups and most rookie finners can’t tell one species from another, thousands of unsold fins are left to rot in fish markets all over Asia.

Finning is a sight that is far from appetizing

Inhumanity is one thing, endangerment or even extinction is quite another. The phenomenal growth in China’s middle class has fueled the exploding demand for shark’s fin, both for gastronomic pleasure and as a status symbol. And whenever the Mainland Chinese start to like something, they go at it like there’s no tomorrow. That, together with the insatiable appetite for fins in Hong Kong where nearly 80% of the world’s fin trade is handled, has created a recipe for the undoing of soup-worthy species like the tiger, the sandbar and the hammerhead. According to studies by animal welfare watchdogs, as many as 100 million sharks are killed every year for their fins and some species have declined by over 90% in the past two to three decades, a period that coincides with China’s economic ascent. Considering that some sharks, such as the lemon and the spurdog, take up to 20 years to mature and produce very few young, it is not surprising that 64 species of oceanic sharks have now been placed on the “Red List” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a leading conservationist group.

80% of the world's fin trade is done on this street


Cruelty and endangerment are the two principal arguments against shark finning. But so much of the first argument turns on our personal philosophy of our relationship with Mother Nature. Who is to say, for instance, that slaughtering an innocent cow, with tears welling in its eyes, is any less cruel? As for the second argument, even scholars and scientists disagree on the causal link between finning and the decline in shark populations and whether the threat of extinction has been grossly overstated.

In the end, the decision to eat or not to eat comes down to one simple analysis: The proportionality test. What do we stand to lose by taking shark’s fin soup off the restaurant menu to discourage finning? After all, soup eaters know all too well that the fins themselves have no taste – all the wonderful aroma and flavors come from the chicken and dried ham in the broth. To keep our age-old tradition alive, restaurant chefs can easily substitute shark’s fin with another ingredient of a similar texture and color, and their soup will taste and look every bit as delicious. 

We have endured other small inconveniences in life before, haven’t we? Many years ago we sacrificed some of our cachet and tradition by saying no to ivory and fur. We gave up that bone-colored ornament at home and got by without the hairy coat in the closet. No skin off our back. But for those species we trap and kill, it is a matter of survival and extinction. The proportional impact on humans versus animals is as clear as day.

If we can give this up, why not a bowl of soup?


Because fishing bans are notoriously hard to enforce, we the consumers alone can reverse the ecological degradation by cutting the overpriced soup from our diet and drying up the global demand for fins. And if after all that you are still unconvinced, consider this: How much mercury and other toxins must have accumulated in the body of an adult shark, nature’s most formidable predator at the top of the food chain, by the time it is finned and put on your dinner table? Bon appétit.

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This article is previously published in HONG KONG State of Mind. Jason Y. Ng is a spokesperson for Shark Savers’ “I’m FINished with FINS” campaign. For more, visit Shark Savers’ website at www.finishedwithfins.org


Support a worthy cause


15 September 2013

As You LIKE It 人人讚好


Social media are the greatest invention of the 21st Century, not least because they provide ready fillers for life’s many dull moments. The virtual world is the perfect antidote to our real life drudgery. Bring on the mile-long taxi line, the interminable Monday morning meeting and even the deadly silent treatment from an upset spouse. All we need to do is whip out our phones, drop our heads and, with a flick of the thumb, wade through stream after mind-numbing stream of news feeds and tweets. In the parallel universe of restaurant check-ins, vacation selfies and baby videos, we are the celebrities and we are the groupies. No one wants to admit it, but many of us have started to reorganize our lives based on how the status update would look on our carefully manicured timeline. 

Is your post worth one of these?


It is therefore all the more important to observe proper online decorum and protect our virtual image. The idea that anything goes in Cyberspace, or that a random post is as consequence-free as tossing a bottle into the ocean, is both naïve and dangerous. The bottle with an inappropriate message has a mysterious way of bobbing its way to a friend of a friend of our unamused boss. Even in less dire situations, social media faux pas can be annoying and sometimes downright infuriating. Repeat offences can damage our reputation and even cost us our friends.

A lot of ink has been spilled on the dos and don’ts in social media. Look up “Facebook etiquette” on Google and we will get hundreds of articles offering different house rules in the billion-member club. We are told to go easy on the hash-tags and avoid spiteful comments, resist tagging friends in unflattering pictures and stay away from product placements. Sound advice, but pretty common sense stuff. Yet time and again, we bear witness to such flagrant lapses of judgment that make us want to right-click on the “hide all posts” option. Chances are you have already inflicted that punishment on a number of pesky acquaintances and, unbeknownst to you, someone has done that to you too. To avoid an all-out defriending warfare, allow me to channel Emily Post and share my two cents on social media protocol. Just make sure you click “Like” if #YouFindThisArticleHelpful. Winky face.

It's a well-covered topic


We begin with frequency. Over-posting is a cardinal sin on Facebook and its Chinese counterpart Renren (人人网). Your timeline is valuable real estate reserved for life events, proud achievements and happy moments that take you by surprise. So don’t clutter it with Starbucks check-ins and platitudes like “Thank God it’s Friday.” Instead, space out your posts and, every now and then, give your friends the wonderful gift of silence. If you find yourself itching to update your status more than once or twice a day, then Twitter or Instagram is your answer. Microblogs and photo-sharing sites are designed for over-sharers who want to post 23 times a day. That’s all right because those who get your feeds are your “followers” – fans who voluntarily sign up for the blow-by-blow account of your earthly existence. Just don’t confuse them with your Facebook friends. 

Choose wisely!


Let’s move on to content. Status updates are an art rather than a science. The idea is to make your friends hate you for your fabulous life but not enough to defriend you. You want to prescribe just the right dose of social comparison to elicit envy instead of resentment. So by all means show off your vacation in idyllic Maldives or mystic Bhutan with jaw-dropping pictures. Shout out to the world with news of your engagement or newborns. But no matter how great the temptation, don’t brag about your new car or job promotion. And no one wants to hear what fancy gifts you got for your birthday or how many glasses of champagne you chugged down at the Four Seasons. Shameless flaunting of wealth and success will induce a mini-vomit in your friends’ mouths. Similarly, a timeline carpeted with material things – shoes, handbags and jewelry  will make you look not only shallow but also diabolically dull.

They call it a "humble brag"


Another big no-no in status updates is what many call “Vaguebooking.” It refers to intentionally vague Facebook posts that beg for attention. Common examples include “Are you kidding me?” and “I can’t believe this is happening to me!” Anyone who likes it or leaves a concerned comment is aiding and abetting bad behavior. Vaguebooking can also come in other forms. The first is song lyrics. A few lines from Adele’s heart-wrenching break-up anthem are a thinly veiled cry for help and should be summarily ignored. The second is poorly written fortune-cookie proverbs that verge on the nonsensical. Each time we come across sudden epiphanies like “True friends are those who stick around,” we wish there was an option to leave undeletable comments. For the proper response to any form of Vaguebooking, however cleverly disguised, is “Who cares?”

Begging for attention


Let’s talk about pictures. Because they are worth a thousand words, you should put a bit of thought into their selection. That means you shouldn’t flood your Instagram page with 28 near-identical pictures of your new hairdo from 28 different angles. Food porn – close-up images of what you eat – is as embarrassing when you snap them at a classy restaurant as it is boring when you plaster them all over your timeline. If we can’t eat it, we don’t want to see it. Also, do your friends a favor and avoid those clichéd Kodak moments: feet on the beach, group jumps, latte art, and the lamest of all, gym mirror selfies. While those illustrated Someecards are sometimes clever, don’t overdo them because at some point you need to develop your own sense of humor. Other graphic ways to alienate your cyber circle include posting screenshots of private whatsapp conversations and constantly making weird, cutesy faces to make up for the lack of good looks. 

If I get a nickel for every foot shot...


With so many pitfalls and land mines, social media can seem like a trap for the unwary. That and privacy concerns have created a resistance army who refuse to open a Facebook or LinkedIn account and, in doing so, turn themselves into modern day hermits. What these holdouts don’t know, is that there is a lot more at stake than not listing their numbers in the local phone book. They miss out on important announcements and career opportunities; they fall completely out of touch with overseas friends, ex-colleagues and anyone who is too busy to catch up over coffee on a regular basis. What’s more, they are admitting to the world that they cannot handle change, or that they lack the confidence and skills to use a powerful tool to their advantage. As the Borg always say, “Resistance is futile.” Sooner or later, even the staunchest of recluses will succumb to peer pressure and join the Dark Side. Only then will they discover that social media are like pet dogs: They don’t bite and can be trained to perform some nifty tricks. 

Join the dark side


Social networks are approaching near ubiquity. Facebook now tops a billion accounts, while Twitter, Google+ and Renren each has over 500 million registered users. When used correctly, they keep us connected and relevant. They provide an affordable marketing platform for freelancers and small business owners. They can even change the world, as Twitter and Flickr did in Iran and Egypt during the Arab Spring. When used clumsily, on the other hand, they can end careers and break up friendships. A single mispost can undo years of effort put into crafting a perfect virtual persona. We should therefore gut-check every post and then gut check it again. When in doubt, go with a gentle touch of self-deprecating humor. A picture of your toothbrush accidentally dropped into the toilet bowl or a tweet about your co-worker’s reaction after you mistook her for being pregnant will guarantee a chock-full of likes. Double winky face.

It's a powerful tool

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This article previously appeared in the September 2013 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in MANIFESTO