Shark fin is NOT Asian culture

Posted on March 29, 2011
Written by: Jaki Teo

(Jaki Teo is the Marketing Director of Infinite Blue Diving in Asia, and is a supporter and friend of Shark Savers.)

Jaki_Teo.jpgIn recent weeks, the AB-376 shark fin debate in San Francisco has sparked much controversy and debate. Senator Leland Yee has even gone so far as to accuse the bill proposing a ban on shark fin trade as an “attack on Asian culture”. As a Chinese person living in Singapore, I feel compelled to offer my thoughts on this matter.

Eighty years ago, my grandfather endured the long and arduous journey across the South China Sea to start his new life in Singapore. He worked for the majority of his years, raising five sons and three daughters. MyAh Gong (as we affectionately called him) passed away without having once tasted shark fin soup.

A few years before his passing, Ah Gong returned to his hometown in China. A welcome banquet was thrown by the entire village, and his relatives, close and distant, gathered around to wax lyrical about times past. Shark fin was not offered as a dish in the banquet. Instead, symbolic dishes such as the traditional pen cai – a large round basin of assorted meat and vegetables representing reunion and triumph over adversity – were served up.

When I was growing up, Ah Gong would lead us in the celebration of Chinese festivals and traditions. We would share mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival, prepare glutinous rice dumplings during the Dragon Boat Festival, and exchange mandarin oranges during Chinese New Year. These cultural foods all bear colourful histories: Mooncakes were used as a medium for communication in the uprising against the Yuan Dynasty, glutinous rice dumplings were used to mourn the watery death of patriotic poet Qu Yuan, and mandarin oranges have long been phonetic symbols of good luck.

As much as Senator Yee might like to have us believe, shark fin has never played a role in traditional Chinese culture. Shark fin remains today as far from Chinese culture as in the Ming Dynasty when only the Emperor and his high court officials consumed it. The ability to serve shark fin may now be a serious matter of social standing but it has nothing at all to do with Chinese culture and much less Chinese tradition. Asserting otherwise is as nonsensical as saying that Louis Vuitton handbags are a traditional Chinese accessory.

The teachings of Confucious and his advocacy of the virtue benevolence (ren) is at the center of Chinese philosophical thought. The shark fin trade, with its cruelty, wastefulness and exploitation of third-world coastal communities goes against every grain of this philosophy.

At the same time, the doctrines of traditional Chinese medicine revolve around achieving a harmonious relationship with nature through a delicate balance of yin and yang forces. The shark fin trade disrupts not only the balance of nature, but also drives some shark species to violent and premature ends. Harmony is certainly not a prevaling theme there.

The consumption of shark fin does not fit in with Chinese culture. It may be representative of pride, power or wealth, but those are personal and commercial realms completely separate from the culture and traditions of an entire race.

The Chinese race is proud and intelligent. The wise words of Confuscious and Sun Tze are studied by international scholars and governments. Our cuisine is world renowned. We are arguably the most adaptable race of people, finding ways to live and thrive in countries all over the world. As our traditional saying goes, the San Francisco Chinese, as well as Ah Gong and myself, were born from the same spring.

With his accusations of a cultural attack, Sentator Yee has painted my proud Chinese race on the world stage as an ignorant, shallow and mercenary people. He has insulted us and himself by drawing a parallel between our long-honoured traditions and a soup whose only point of importance is price.

It is true that the AB-376 shark fin bill is tough and that many people may have to give up a dish they have grown used to. But weigh up the benefits of sustainable livelihoods for at-risk fishing communities, the importance of a healthy ecosystem for the future of our children, and the moral need for us to behave as responsible adults, and the results will resound far beyond religion, race or culture.


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