A fin tale
Text Lunita S V Mendoza
Additional Information WildAid
Translation of the Compendium of Materia Medica《굶꿇멉커》Selina Tan, by way of Nan Du
Advisor Gao Qiang
The consumption of shark fin is a very unusual phenomenon in the history of China. Ancient Chinese appreciated the art of cooking other parts of sharks, in particular the skin and lips of certain species. It became famed throughout the culinary world. Mei Yaochen, a renowned poet of the Song dynasty (960–1279) once wrote a poem on the practice of shredding shark skin and its unique taste. For a long time, people mistook the dish’s appearance for shark fin.
In actual fact, shark fin soup originated from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). It was first written about in the Compendium of Materia Medica (《굶꿇멉커》), by Li Shizhen in 1590 – described as voluminous and succulent, and was hugely well-received by royalty. History has it that the Tianqi Emperor, who ruled from 1620 to 1627, made shark fin popular among the distinguished. In order to please him at a banquet, his royal chefs cooked it together with other special ingredients, including bird’s nest, fresh prawns and clams. The result was a premium stew that became his treasured favourite.
A recipe was even compiled during that period, detailing the method of cleaning and slicing the fins. It stated clearly that to impart flavour, meat, stock and wine have to be added to the combination. The Song Dynasty Manuscript Compendium (《芥삔狼서멨》), written by Qing dynasty author Xu Song, mentions that shark fin was imported from global seas into Fujian province from the 1300s onwards. This work was extracted in part from the Ming dynasty Yongle Encyclopaedia, published in 1408.
By the advent of the Qing dynasty, shark fin had become a signature dish, primarily because sharks were not easily caught, and thus hard to come by. A symbol of status, shark fin soup was upheld as a delicacy like no other owing to how it always amalgamated an array of distinct cuisines and entailed an intricate preparation process. The original taste of shark fin was never described – only the texture got a mention – as it was never able to hold up on its own.
Today in 2015
It was an unbelievable experience to hear 82-year-old Tan Lin Yian so passionately and honestly speak of having given up eating shark fin soup. “We have to make sure we don’t destroy the ocean,” Madam Tan said in Hokkien, almost reprimanding all who were listening. “Think before you just anyhow do (sic).” What a breath of fresh air.
The founders of ASIAN Geographic started out with the vision of eradicating the consumption of shark fin in all its forms – from soup to dumplings – more than 14 years ago. The magazine’s founders had already seen the damage the mindset of eating shark fin soup for so-called “face” and status would do to the environment in the long run.
Many do not realise that not all Chinese cuisines corresponding to the various dialects actually have shark fin soup as traditional must-have dishes for celebrations and gatherings.
In fact, out of six major dialects (Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Shanghainese, Sichuanese), only four (Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Sichuanese) maintain shark fin soup as a recurring dish. However, more than 60 percent of the population in China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan make up the dialects that continue to insist on shark fin consumption. This excludes countries like Japan, who also contribute to the consumption of shark fin in the form of dumplings.
Hopeful Statistics to Inspire
Historically, Hong Kong was the epicentre of the global shark fin trade (as it was for the international ivory trade until it was banned in 1989), but trade has shifted more recently to Guangzhou, in southern China. Between 1980 and 1990, available statistics show that Hong Kong imported 65 to 80 percent of all recorded shark fins.
From 2000 to 2009, Hong Kong was the largest importer, followed by China. Although China does not collate trade data, market sources and investigations assert that the centre of the trade has shifted. By 2000, shark fin traders estimated that Hong Kong’s imports
had declined to 44 to 58 percent of the global market. From 2001 to 2006, that fell a further 30 to 50 percent.
A 2007 study of the social, economic and regulatory drivers of the shark fin trade determined that “the migration of the trade from its former centre in Hong Kong to mainland China has resulted in a severe curtailment of the ability to monitor and assess impacts on shark populations”.
Shark fin imports to Hong Kong declined from 10,292,421 kilograms in 2011 to 8,254,332 kilograms in 2012, a 20 percent decrease. The year after, Hong Kong shark fin imports reportedly dropped an additional 35 percent to 5,390,122 kilograms.
However, the codes under which shark fin products are reported were revised in the 2012 government data. Because of this change, fins were logged under a rarely used code and, therefore, may be missing from reported totals.
In May 2014, the Hong Kong Shark Fin Trade Merchants Association reported a membership of 70 to 80 companies (exclusively from Sheung Wan, Sai Wan or Sai Ying Pun), representing approximately 700 to 800 employees. However, none of the member companies depend solely on shark fin for their sales. All association member companies were diversified into other products, such as fish maw and sea cucumbers. Similar information regarding numbers of shark fin companies in China is not available.
In April 2014, an extensive interview with a trader in Hong Kong’s shark fin retail district of Sheung Wan confirmed that the bulk of all shark fins now enter Guangzhou directly by ship, and that Hong Kong has lost its shark fin-hub status to Guangzhou. He stated that imports by weight were down by 50 percent over the previous 12 months, and the price of shark fin had fallen by 30 percent over the previous five months, with prices continuing in “free fall”.
Hong Kong shark fin traders have attributed their loss of market share to this shift of importing fins directly to Guangzhou. With any luck, the market will not be lucrative enough to continue such an effort.
Real Chinese Fighting for Sharks
From popular Chinese actress Hai Qing to former professional basketball player Yao Ming, and a slew of Hong Kong celebrities, including Sharon Kwok, Carl Ng, his famous father Richard Ng, Jackie Chan, Alex Fong, Quincy Wong and Anthony Wong, all spreading the good word about saving sharks, it is heartening to see the positive impact this is creating.
In the late 1980s, Richard Ng Yiu-hon, a China-born Hong Kong actor and comedy screen legend, particularly in Hong Kong films of the 1980s and 1990s, stopped eating shark fin soup entirely.
While it was then more because the older generation had passed on, and the fact that Richard and his family preferred the simpler sweet corn soup, today it is a greater understanding that motivates Richard and his actor son Carl to advocate the ban on shark fin soup consumption. One of the biggest affirmations of this is the fact that all who know the Ng family share the same opinion and no one has an issue keeping shark fin soup off the menu at family gatherings and social events.
For anyone who stopped and listened to a screen star, Richard himself would start off by explaining the cruelty behind the finning of sharks, before moving on to how it upsets the biodiversity of the ocean and ultimately, the planet. “And if the other person still didn’t get it,” jokes Carl, “he’d probably give them two fingers and ask them to stand in the corner of the room until they did understand it!”
For more stunning stories and photographs from this issue, check out Asian Geographic Issue 111.