A Hong Kong blog that does a lot more than blog
Perhaps you’ve been there: gone to dim sum with a local, maybe in your first months in Hong Kong. Enjoyed the delights of Cantonese cuisine served in bite-sized portions. Left the ordering up to your friend, because you know this is a modern city; nothing too horrible on the menu. And so far it’s been great: little shrimp and pork pockets of joy; sweet custard pastry; savoury rice rolls; all dipped in deliciously bitter soy vinegar and washed down with fragrant tea.
Then a dish arrives on the table. It looks skeletal, soaked in oil and spice until it seems the flesh will roll away. You take a bite – a nibble – and you realise there is no flesh, just tasty, rubbery-soft flavour and sinewy tendon around a bony core.
“What the heck’s this?” you blurt, your eyes signalling your feeling of betrayal. Your friend seems not your friend and the cultural divide that was non-existent moments ago seems to widen.
“Fung zaau” they exclaim. “Phoenix talons! A gift from the gods.” This last part is delivered with a moving claw protruding from the lower lip.
“You mean chicken’s feet?” You’d heard about this, but in your heart of hearts, you never thought they really existed. Just another story about ‘mysterious China’ that, like so many, had no real meaning in cosmopolitan Hong Kong.
And yet here you are, chewing on the most downtrodden part of the most downtrodden bird. Perhaps you’ve been there.
But rather than being a simple local delicacy – a filler for the Lonely Planet – Lion Rock News has heard whisperings: that chicken feet might not be all they claim. We sent our daring undercover reporter to investigate.
I started in an alley behind the local dim sum restaurant. Smelly Fish (not his real name) had agreed to show me the dark secret of the Hong Kong chicken feet industry. I climbed atop his moped, helmet securely fastened, and held on as we rode off at breakneck speed. I very quickly realised that the helmet had been rigged so I couldn’t see a thing. I was totally in the hands of Smelly Fish as we sped around the city.
We reached our destination, my helmet removed inside a dark garage attached to some kind of dank warehouse. To ensure my protection, Smelly Fish insisted I wore a facekini. I walked into the next room looking like a cross between a Ukrainian separatist and a holidaying Chinese spinster, but at least I was safe, anonymous.
What I saw next truly shocked me. Rows upon rows of them, flapping, squawking, fiery red with eyes of deep azure. They were caged here before slaughter, cut into fillets for the dining pleasure of Hong Kongers. It was the first time I had ever seen them, and perhaps would be the last.
As far as the eye could see were these amazing creatures, once thought mythical, but very much alive and here, in Hong Kong.
Their meat is harvested, and their feet sent to ‘no-fakes’ restaurants across town. Genuine Phoenix talons.
Soon, the mood of the workers there soured and we had to leave, quickly. It transpired later that they had taken exception to my Hello Kitty facekini, the dark societies in Hong Kong loathing anything remotely Japanese. What a crazy mistake to make. I was just trying to fit in.
Back in the alley, I had to ask Smelly Fish an obvious question. Why? How did this discovery come about and why not report it to scientist, or the authorities?
“It’s tradition, I suppose,” he offered. “Hong Kongers have been eating fung zaau for as long as anyone can remember. I guess they just thought it was a posh name for chicken feet. At first, I did.”
“But the other aspect is financial. Chickens are expensive, but these birds are self-sustaining.”
I told Smelly Fish I didn’t understand.
“Well, the Phoenix farmers only ever need to buy one bird. When they throw it in the oven for cooking, another one rises from its ashes. They sell the cooked one and keep the fresh one until, well, you know, the next order.”
“The order of the Phoenix, you might say. Ahahahaha!” His toothless laughter echoed around the alley and went on for far too long to be considered comfortable. “What’s wrong? You not like Harry Potter?!? Expelianus!!! Ahahahaha!” Smelly Fish was clearly insane, or very, very foreign.
But there it was, undeniable: the dark secret at the heart of chicken feet. After the initial start-up cost, they’re close to 100% profit for the wholesaler. The envy of Hong Kong.
I asked Smelly Fish if he felt this was morally acceptable. Didn’t the birds suffer?
“No problem. Hong Kongers have been doing this for years and people keep eating and the birds carry on living, dying and being reborn,” he replied. “It’s just the same as the hydra octopus in Japan,” he added, “and you never hear anything about that.”
This has been a Lion Rock News special investigation.
Lion Rock News: making special investigations even more special since very recently.