Is it racist to ban shark's fin soup?

All three West Coast states may eliminate the Chinese delicacy, but is it pro-environment, or anti-Asian?

Published March 7, 2011 3:01PM (EST)

Sandbar shark, one of the preferred species for fins
Sandbar shark, one of the preferred species for fins

My Chinese grandfather was well into the latter part of his life when he made some money. He'd brought his children up on bowls of white rice with soy sauce and maybe a little pat of lard if he was feeling flush. And so, when it was time to feed his grandchildren, he loved that he could feed them the good stuff, the expensive stuff. I remember him being happy to see my grade school straight-A report cards, but the grins he showed me then were dwarfed by the supernova smiles he'd flash when I ate with him, precociously enjoying shark's fin soup and other delicacies cousins my age were studiously avoiding at the kids' table. And so I wonder what he'd think of the movement to ban shark's fin.

Following in Hawaii's footsteps, Washington, Oregon and, most significantly, California have introduced statewide legislation that would make it illegal -- and highly fineable -- to serve or even possess shark's fin. (Hawaii's law calls for fines of $5,000 to $15,000 for even first-time offenders.)

Ban supporters talk about the trade's inhumane treatment of sharks and an outsize environmental impact. The "Ew-ick-how-can-you-do-that" argument is that fins are largely harvested by cutting them off of live sharks, then dumping the shark back in in the water to die. But the more big-picture concern is about the scale of finning: researchers estimate that 73 million sharks are killed every year to feed an exploding demand in fins by a huge, growing middle class in China. Some scientists estimate that ocean shark populations are just 10 percent of what they used to be, and there's no telling what kind of impact that can have. As Dan Cartamil, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said on the KPBS radio show "These Days," "You take away the sharks, and, for example, many coral reef ecosystems become degraded. There are suddenly lots of stingrays, because now they have no natural predators, and then they may eat all the oysters, which is a commercial fishery." And on and on. So the current scale of shark finning is a real problem.

But then I think, again, of my grandfather, and the night he took a teenage me to a nondescript, fluorescent-lit noodle shop in an undistinguished, vaguely smelly part of Macau. Walking past folding tables with diners on stools, going through an unmarked door behind a curtain, we found ourselves suddenly in a plush, one-table dining room, with relatively regal carpeting and a tablecloth of bright red, the color of celebration. I remember the dinner being wonderful, and that the strands of shark's fin in the soup were thicker than spaghetti, a sign of quality ... and extravagant expense. And it became clear that the room, the table, the whole dinner -- so strange and luxurious amid such undistinguished circumstances -- was built around the event of that soup; the metaphor of that soup was undeniable. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that much of my grandfather's life was built around that soup, built around the idea that he could show the world and himself that he'd finally made it, that he could literally feed his family his success. For him, and tens of millions like him, that feeling of satisfaction must be unparalleled.

And so foes of the ban, including Chinese American California state Sen. Leland Yee, are tempted to say things like, "This is an attack on Asian culture." And Jon Kauffman of SF Weekly sharply noted that it's not hard to see "an anti-Chinese subtext in the ban," with the language of the debate rife with "echoes of Americans' fear of the rising Chinese middle class, and the persistent suspicion and disgust many Americans feel toward other cultures' foods."

But, Kauffman continues:

"Globally, we've reached the point at which the collapse of an ecosystem has to take precedence over one culture's culinary heritage. No matter who the primary 'market' is, overconsumption is taking sharks -- and bluefin tuna, and Atlantic cod, and hundreds of other species -- away from all of us, and we all have a right to demand action. The situation is becoming drastic, and drastic, across-the-board bans are warranted."

If the science is correct, I'd have to agree. (Sorry, grandpa. Really. I'm sorry.) I mean, the cultural import of the dish is, to be frank, as much about the demonstration of status as anything else, and there is no limit to the creativity of aspirational culture to come up with the next big status symbol. I mean, go ahead and buy another pair of Prada shoes instead of taking me out for shark's fin. It's fine. I don't mind, and after a while, you're not going to mind either. After all, the nature of status symbols is that the more they're attained, the shallower their actual meaning, and the more attractive the next, other thing eventually becomes.

And cultures evolve. As Judy Ki, of a pro-ban group called Asian Pacific Americans Ocean Harmony Alliance, said, "I personally don't think our culture is that fragile that it would fall apart without one little delicacy. My grandmother's feet were bound. That was part of 'our culture,' and I'm very glad we've said that's wrong." (It's worth noting that several California Chinese American legislators support the ban -- and the bill was originally co-sponsored by a Chinese American assemblyman.)

But there is something disconcerting about this ban. A Chinese American chef, Jonathan Wu, noted, "It's a tough call, but I support the ban. While we are at it, I'd also ban Caspian caviar and bluefin tuna [Caspian sturgeon and bluefin tuna are both considered endangered by many scientists] until their fisheries recover -- no doubt, that would raise an uproar in certain other cultural communities."

And that's the thing: It's not that this ban is "racist" as some have put it, it's that it's the kind of thing that smells a bit of cynical political posturing, scoring cheap environmental points because no politician is going to lose any votes that matter. Get rid of a grody-sounding food that only the Chinese are stupid enough to save up their money for? Easy! Try to take away the endangered tuna from voters' Friday night sushi date, though, and there'll be hell to pay. And don't even think about doing anything about factory farming, the cheap-meat industry that is unequivocally ruining huge swaths of our ecology and our health. It's not a good state of affairs when we can easily get up a head of steam behind laws that take away others' pleasures, but refuse to even take a hard look at our own. 

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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