The politics of shark fin soup

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March
28

The issue is not whether shark fin soup should be banned, without a doubt it should be. Rather, the issue is the way we discuss the issue and the hypocrisy and racism rampant in this debate.

Dare I say it? “I am an animal advocate and I have eaten shark fin soup. “

I wanted to write about this particular issue, because of the apparent shame and vitriol associated with the abovementioned statement. I am someone who is personally affected by the shark fin soup issue. As a Chinese Canadian, I had my fair share of shark fin soup growing up. My parents immigrated to Canada a few decades ago and are animal lovers themselves. Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I had no clue of what was involved with bringing that soup to my bowl. It is rarely served, usually only at special events, such as weddings or other important events that would call for a traditional Chinese banquet. The soup is seen as a sign of prestige, wealth, and honour and is a show of great respect and appreciation for your guests. Given the amount and variety of meat served in Chinese cooking, there was no reason for me to question whether the shark meat in the soup was obtained in a way that was any different from ANY other meat served at the dinners; it was just another type of meat.

Today, I know differently. There has been an increasing awareness to animal welfare issues related to the meat industry and consumption of meat. More recently, the inhumane and wasteful methods used to harvest shark fins have been exposed, leading to international calls for a ban against selling shark fin soup.

The intention of this article is to add some insight to the challenges of negotiating animal welfare concerns for many of us raised in non-Western, meat-eating cultures. Regardless of your background, choosing to eat differently than the norms of your culture and your family is always very difficult – particularly when food is an important component of cultural celebrations and familial socialization. However, for many who make this decision, they should not also have to deal with cultural insensitive assumptions and racist comments that attack who they are.

As a founding board member of Paws for Hope Animal Foundation, I can attest that one of the first issues we addressed was our position on the consumption of meat. Paws for Hope advocates for the humane treatment of all animals and encourages people to be conscious of where their food comes from. We believe in the value of education and awareness as an important facilitator in social change and encourage dialogue on issues relevant and pressing in animal welfare.

When the issue of shark fin soup began to make headlines, we followed the Canadian movement and posted news worthy stories on Facebook and Twitter. What transpired in the comments section shocked all of us and personally offended and angered me:

“It doesn’t surprise me that Chinese people would support this practice given their record of human rights issues”,

“Chinese cuisine has some pretty stupid things in it like, how is this supposed to increase wealth and power?”

“Not surprised coming from such a barbaric culture full of greedy businessmen”.

“This is Canada, go back to where you came from if you want to eat that disgusting food”

I have to admit, I feel physically ill when I read through many of these comments. And these are just a sample of comments, one can only imagine what the comments like that were deemed as offensive and removed. I am however, not naïve. I recognize that there are obviously many Chinese individuals who engage in these practices, despite how inhumane they are. I recognize that many Chinese individuals support the continued consumption of shark fin soup. I am also aware that many of those commenting are NOT representative of all attitudes towards the issue. But I feel compelled to discuss a couple points:

It is important to understand that many Chinese individuals who eat shark fin soup are actually unaware of the way the sharks are killed to make the dish. Realistically, there is no reason to necessarily assume that sharks would be killed in a way that is different from other sea life or farm animals that are consumed. A viewpoint I can personally attest to. Many individuals, Chinese or otherwise, are simply not aware. That is not to say that “ignorance is bliss” or that we shouldn’t try and make everyone aware. It does mean however, that many of these individuals are not deserving of the hate directed towards them.

Similarly, I often wonder what the dietary inclinations are of those so quick to judge. While I agree that the shark fin harvesting practices are especially cruel and wasteful, I challenge anyone who does not see similar barbaric conditions of gestation crates, caged chickens, and slaughter house cows that are consumed by millions people every day.

The challenge for many of us is negotiating the knowledge of the inhumanity of the shark fin trade with a very strong and widely held cultural tradition. It is not uncommon for people to admit to only eating the soup so as not appear disrespectful.

In order for positive change to occur, we must work though the appropriate cultural lens. Movements are never successful when they completely ignore the cultures that they are trying to affect. For example, one method of attempting to influence movement on the shark fin soup issue has been for protestors to picket outside of restaurants around the city. In my opinion, not only does this protest do almost nothing to affect the real problem (i.e., targeting the lowest levels of consumers as opposed to higher level governmental regulations, global trade of shark fins, etc.), but it also does not take into account the cultural factors that may be influencing why this particular restaurant is serving shark fin soup in the first place. Anecdotally, I have noticed that the majority of these protestors have not been of Chinese descent. Combined with the aforementioned hateful and racist comments, these types of movements can unintentionally create an “us vs. them” dynamic in the protest that often hinders any sort of dialogue or movement.

Organizations, such as Shark Truth, which have been spearheaded by Chinese–Canadians, will likely have the greatest impact. Their mandate focuses on spreading awareness and providing alternatives to shark fin soup for special occasions. What many other groups have failed to do in their protests against the soup is provide an alternative to a very important and long held cultural tradition. In addition, they provide incentives for people to commit to not eating shark fin soup, such as the “Happy Hearts Love Sharks” contest, which provides a chance to win a trip for Chinese couples who chose not to have shark fin soup at their weddings.
Their campaigns focus on sharks and the shark fin trade, instead of denouncing practices that are associated with it. It is initiatives like Shark Truth that give me hope that we can move together on this issue, while still being empathic towards each others’ backgrounds. Last month in a discussion about the Toronto shark fin soup ban, Councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam further emphasized that the ban is not an attack on Chinese Culture, and many of those involved in this campaign in Asia are Chinese. She pointed out to the Globe and Mail, “We can have a civil debate about consumption practice or the ethical treatment of animals, we can have a conversation about ocean preservation and sustainable fishing practices without bringing in any attack on culture.”
And this is exactly the point. It is an important issue that we should be able to discuss openly without attacking an entire culture. By doing so, we alienate many of the Chinese Canadians who are supportive of animal rights initiatives, like myself, and serve only to further divide us. Our Executive Director, Kathy Powelson, wrote a poignant editorial about the need for animal advocates to work together, not apart, if we are ever to make the progress that we so desire. Nothing can be more divisive than attacking an individual’s culture and race.

Finally, the word “culture” is not reserved for race-related and geographical culture. The way we are raised can have an important impact on the decisions we make. The next time you read an article or post about an animal rights issue, take a moment to think about the judgements you are making, where your perceptions and beliefs are coming from and how helpful they really are in moving that issue forward. Let’s work to support each other through both the good and the bad decisions.

Karen Au Yeung
Board Member
Paws for Hope Animal Foundation

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