Skip to main content

Hunger Game 飢餓遊戲

Every Chinese New Year I buy myself a tangerine tree for good luck. Ripe fruits fallen to the ground will mould and turn white and green within 36 hours.

Every Thanksgiving I roast a turkey big enough to feed twelve. Leftovers taste better the next day but will spoil by the week’s end even when kept in the fridge.

Food is supposed to spoil


The unifying theme of these two unrelated household anecdotes is that unprocessed food does not last. Spoilage is part of nature’s metabolism. So how is it possible that the Valencia oranges on my kitchen counter look exactly the same as they did five weeks ago at the store, or that the expiration date stamped on a can of luncheon meat reads “March 2018”? I can’t help but wonder what really is in our food.

Our appetite for things that taste better, look nicer, last longer and cost less, from breakfast cereal to meat products and fresh produce, is insatiable. Consumer demand has spurred the growing use of pesticides, flavorings, colorings and preservatives in the food industry. While globalization requires mass-produced food to withstand long travels and lengthy storage, increased competition from world trade means that the dual goal of taste and shelf life must be achieved at the lowest cost possible. Food safety will have to take a back seat. Every now and then we hear news stories of E. coli or salmonella outbreaks caused by contamination in the food production chain. And every so often a medical journal will warn us of the danger of BPA, BHA and other industrial chemicals found in packaged food.

What's in your food?

America is a pioneer and leader in many things: blockbuster movies, smart phones and, for better or for worse, processed food. The Fast Food Nation has given the world not only McDonalds and Campbell Soup, but also an inventive panoply of genetically modified crops like herbicide-resistant soybeans and insect-killing corn. To feed 300 million supersized stomachs, the American animal farm has been transformed into a Detroit auto plant. In a typical “factory farm,” livestock is confined in overcrowded feedlots that stretch for miles. Poultry and cattle are fed antibiotics and growth hormones to reduce the spread of disease and speed up production.

Moral qualms over animal cruelty aside, the use of undesirable chemicals in intensive animal farming and the rise of medication-resistant bacteria raise serious concerns over the long-term effects on human health, such as early puberty in pre-teen girls as a result of exposure to growth hormones. None of that, however, prevents the practice from being replicated on an even larger scale in emerging markets around the world, including India and Brazil, the world’s largest exporters of beef and chicken, respectively.

How farm animals are raised nowadays

But all those Frankenstein foods and jam-packed industrial farms in America pale in comparison to the stomach-turning food safety scandals in China. The world’s second largest economy is also a 21st Century dystopia, where unscrupulous businessmen are willing to sell anything to make a quick buck. The long list of unsafe food products in China includes rice contaminated with cadmium, rat meat sold as mutton and pork that glows in the dark because of phosphorescent bacteria.

In the Wild Wild East, the food industry is made up of equal parts ingenuity, audacity and atrocity. The infamous “ditch oil” (地溝油), for instance, used by fine restaurants across the country, is made by carefully distilling discarded oil collected from the sewers. Fake eggs that bounce like ping pong balls are manufactured using gelatin and paraffin, each handcrafted with an artist’s sensibility and a surgeon’s precision. If only they put their talent to better use, China might have come up with its own iPhone and iPad.

Extra virgin ditch oil

The watershed moment in China’s tattered food safety record came in 2008, when tainted baby formula sickened nearly 300,000 infants and killed at least six. Sanlu (三鹿), a state-owned dairy product manufacturer and one of the most trusted names in the food business, was caught using the industrial chemical melamine to boost its milk powder’s protein content to meet government nutritional standards. The company filed for bankruptcy later that year.

Since the Sanlu scandal made international headlines, the Chinese leadership has made repeated promises to crack down on illegal business practices and make food safety a national priority. Six years on, however, tainted milk products continue to resurface at smaller retail chains in fits and starts. In the Chinese food business, catching the bad guys is more than just a cat-and-mouse game – it’s more like playing Whac-A-Mole at the arcade.

One of the 300,000 "stone babies"

An unbridled market economy, lax regulatory oversight and widespread corruption have created a perfect storm for the New China. Whereas air pollution may take years to take its toll and we won’t feel the effect of shoddy building construction until the next earthquake, the impact of unsafe food products is much more immediate and noticeable. And while government authorities are slow to rein in the food industry, responses from ordinary citizens are much swifter. In cities across the nation, citizens avoid eating out whenever they can, for fear of dubious cooking oil and meat products. They only shop at big supermarket chains and prepare their own meals at home. These changes in dining and shopping habits bring about other social ramifications. That only the elite can afford pricy organic or imported food is fuelling a growing sense of social injustice.

Increasingly, people in China – even those in big urban cities – are starting to grow their own food. A Mainland Chinese friend of mine told me that his parents who live in a residential area 20 minutes from Beijing have formed farming communes with their neighbors. They grow tomatoes, pumpkins and melons in makeshift farmland converted from public lawns within the housing complex. The very place where they used to practice tai chi in the morning has been dug up for seed planting. These urban farms do not provide nearly enough food to support an entire neighborhood, but many would rather eat less than get violently sick. And so it appears that China has come full circle in a mere generation. People used to starve before economic reforms lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Decades later, citizens are suffering from starvation of a different kind, caused not by a lack of resources but an absence of civic morality.

Urban farms are popping up in big Chinese cities

The ripple effect of China’s food safety crisis is felt far and wide, but none more intensely than here in Hong Kong, where nearly all of our food is imported and 90% of it comes from the Motherland. 70% of our drinking water is purchased from nearby Guangdong province. Gone are the days when the island was a self-sufficient fishing village capable of feeding itself. Today, there are less than 7 square kilometers of arable farmland – roughly 0.5% of the city’s area – occupied by a dwindling base of aging farmers. Each time we hear another food scandal in China, we are reminded of the city’s vulnerability to the decline in business ethics up north.

Until the Chinese bureaucrats get their act together to strengthen food safety oversight, Mainland Chinese and Hong Kongers alike continue to play Russian roulette at every meal. There is very little that an ordinary citizen can do to turn the tide – for as much as we try to check the origin of every food item we buy at the market, each time we eat out we are at the mercy of the restaurant that will always put taste and cost above our health. Just when we think we have more food choices than ever, we are hit with the reality that we have far fewer safe options than we used to. The cornucopia, the horn of plenty that symbolizes abundance in modern society, is just an illusion.

Read also Part 2 of this article: The Dating Game.

We have fewer choices than ever
___________________________

This article was published in the January/February 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As published in MANIFESTO

Popular Posts

“As I See It” has moved to www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it

As I See It has a new look and a new home!! Please bookmark www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it for the latest articles and a better reading experience. Legacy articles will continue to be available on this page. Thank you for your support since 2008. www.jasonyng.com/as-i-see-it

From Street to Chic, Hong Kong’s many-colored food scene 由大排檔到高檔: 香港的多元飲食文化

Known around the world as a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has a bounty of restaurants to satisfy every craving. Whether you are hungry for a lobster roll, Tandoori chicken or Spanish tapas, the Fragrant Harbour is certain to spoil you for choice. The numbers are staggering. Openrice, the city’s leading food directory, has more than 25,000 listings—that’s one eatery for every 300 people and one of the highest restaurants-per-capita in the world. The number of Michelin -starred restaurants reached a high of 64 in 2015, a remarkable feat for a city that’s only a little over half the size of London. Amber and Otto e Mezzo occupied two of the five top spots in Asia according to The World’s Best Restaurants , serving up exquisite French and Italian fares that tantalise even the pickiest of taste buds. Dai pai dong is ever wallet-friendly While world class international cuisine is there for the taking, it is the local food scene in Hong Kong that steals the hearts of residents a

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence , healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances. From White to Rainbow Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges , Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”  With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made ma

The City that Doesn’t Read 不看書的城市

The Hong Kong Book Fair is the city’s biggest literary event, drawing millions of visitors every July. The operative word in the preceding sentence is “visitors,” for many of them aren’t exactly readers. A good number show up to tsau yit lau (湊熱鬧) or literally, to go where the noise is. In recent years, the week-long event has taken on a theme park atmosphere. It is where bargain hunters fill up empty suitcases with discounted books, where young entrepreneurs wait all night for autographed copies only to resell them on eBay, and where barely legal – and barely dressed – teenage models promote their latest photo albums. And why not? Hong Kongers love a carnival. How many people visit a Chinese New Year flower market to actually buy flowers? Hong Kong Book Fair 2015 If books are nourishment for the soul, then the soul of our city must have gone on a diet. In Hong Kong, not enough of us read and we don’t read enough. That makes us an “aliterate” people: able to read bu

Brexit Lessons for Hong Kong 脫歐的教訓

It was an otherwise beautiful, balmy Friday in Hong Kong, if it weren’t for the cross-Channel divorce that put the world under a dark cloud of fright and disbelief. Asia was the first to be hit by the Brexit shock wave. BBC News declared victory for the Leave vote at roughly 11:45am Hong Kong time – hours before London opened – and sent regional stock markets into a tailspin. The shares of HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank, both listed on the Hong Kong Exchange, plunged 6.5 and 9.5 per cent, respectively... It ended in divorce ________________________ This article appeared in the 29 June 2016 print edition of the South China Morning Post . Read the rest of it on SCMP.com as " After Brexit, Hong Kong voters should take a careful look at what our own localist parties are really selling localist politics ." As published in the print edition of the South China Morning Post

The Beam in Our Eye 眼中的梁木

With 59 confirmed deaths and over 500 wounded, the Las Vegas mass shooting is the deadliest one in modern American history. Places like Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Sandy Hook, Orlando—and now Sin City—are forever associated with carnage and death tolls.  They don't get it Not a week goes by in America without a horrific gun attack in a shopping mall, a school or a movie theatre.People outside the U.S. can’t fathom why the world’s wealthiest country can be in such denial over a simple fact: more guns means more gun-related deaths. But they don’t get it, don’t now? Instead, they tell us foreigners to stay out of the debate because we don’t understand what the Second Amendment means to the Land of the Free. So the anomaly continues: each time a shooting rampage shocks the nation, citizens respond with prayers and tributes for a while, but their lawmakers do nothing to change gun laws. And we—the foreigners—shake our heads in disbelief and wonder how many more innocen

A Farewell to Arms 永别了,武器

America is a bizarre country. To be an American — or to live in America — is to accept a few things that defy common sense. For starters, pizza is considered a “vegetable” under federal law. Two tablespoons of tomato paste on the dough is enough to make the pie healthy enough to be served at every public school cafeteria. Speaking of health, emergency rooms across the country routinely turn down trauma patients who fail to produce proof of health insurance. Facing skyrocketing healthcare costs , the uninsured are left for dead and the insured are worried sick about rising deductibles and annual premiums. Not bizarre enough? Here's another good one: gun shootings have become so commonplace that the evening news no longer reports them unless they are deemed a “shooting rampage.” And each time after a massacre, gun enthusiasts line up outside Wal-Mart to stock up on assault weapons for fear of tougher gun laws. That’s right, in America you can buy a military-style semi-automatic rifl

Dining Out... - Part 1 出街食-上卷

The Michelin Guide published its first Hong Kong/Macau edition in 2009. Since then, the little red book has sparked spirited debate and sometimes even nationalistic rumblings among citizens. Hong Kongers balk at the idea of a bunch of foreigners judging our food, when most of the undercover inspectors sent by the guide can’t tell a fish maw from a fish belly or know the first thing about dun (燉), mun (焖), zing (蒸), pou (泡) and zoek (灼) – to name but a few ways a Chinese chef may cook his ingredients with steam. For many of us, it seems far wiser to spend the HK$200 (that’s how much the guide costs) on a couple of hairy crabs currently in season than on a restaurant directory published by a tire manufacturer. The launch Food is a tricky business. It confounds even the most sophisticated of cultures and peoples. The English and the Germans, for instance, excel in everything else except for the one thing that matters most. Young nations like America, Australia and Canada..

The Art of Profanity 粗口藝術

We react to life’s little vicissitudes – nicking the car door, dropping the phone on a concrete pavement or losing hours of work to a computer crash – with a curse word or two. If some brute walks by and knocks the coffee right out of our hand, the appropriate response is: What the fuck?  Swearing is one of those things that we do everyday and nearly everywhere. But like breaking wind and picking our nose, profanity is only bad when someone else does it. Most of us are too squeamish or sanctimonious to own up to it. Rarely in the human experience has something so universally shared been so vehemently condemned and denied. Turning society into a nanny state Profanity exists in every culture. Curse words are the first vocabulary we learn in a foreign language and the only one we remember years later. The linguistic phenomenon can be traced as far back as Ancient Egypt and Babylon. Literary giants like William Shakespeare, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw were known to u