As a server came up to Fei Yi Long’s table with a cluster of small white bowls carefully portioned with shark fin soup, she was the only one at the table of family members who politely declined. Her aunties and uncles would incessantly say that she’s too much of a hippie, Fei Yi said.
“My family prides itself in serving the soup at banquets,” said Fei Yi. “If it weren’t for my mom’s persistence, I wouldn’t have had it served at my wedding.”
It’s apparent that shark fin soup has a whiff of controversy around it that highlights this generational divide between the younger eco-friendly generation and the more traditionally bound older generation.
Fei Yi, a 25-year-old nursing major at San Francisco State University, said that Chinese culture needs to adapt to the changing environment, especially with the decimated shark population. Her mother, Huayi, couldn’t disagree with her more.
“The soup isn’t just a soup,” Huayi said. “It’s the embodiment of these prized Chinese notions of hospitality, generosity and, of course, saving face.”
Fei Yi believes that the proposed ban on shark fin is an opportunity for the older Chinese community to become more eco-conscious and not be ashamed to lose face in becoming so.
“My mom’s all about pride and prestige, and shark fin soup is all about that,” Fei Yi said. “I explain the importance of the ecosystem to her and how it outweighs the mystical properties of one soup dish. But I’m like her, stubborn and all.”
Though Fei Yi was weaned on shark fin soup that was cooked by her mother for special occasions, she ate it strictly as a customary ritual. After she discovered the soup’s impact on the ecosystem, she stopped eating the soup altogether. Shark fin soup serves as nothing more than a shallow means to boost one’s self-worth, she said.
“We’re really only putting a $100 price tag on our pride when we serve the soup,” she said. “That sure doesn’t justify the millions of sharks dying slow, painful deaths.”
At her daughter’s wedding reception, Huayi Long looked down woefully at her bowl of gelatinous soup filled with shredded chicken, scallions and ginger. She steadily lifted her wonton spoon and gently scooped up sinewy strands of cooked shark fin. Even coming from the emotional high of her daughter’s wedding ceremony, she felt sorrow concentrated in that one bowl of soup. This may be the last time Long may ever have shark fin soup, a Chinese tradition that’s been practiced by her family for almost a century.
“Without shark’s fin, there’s no celebration,” said Long, 53. “It exposes your lack of self-worth, especially financially.”
A bill recently introduced in California Legislature has angered many of those including Long in the Chinese community who grew up eating shark fin soup as a cultural tradition.
Introduced by Assemblymen Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, AB 376 would ban the sale, distribution and possession of shark fin and take it off the market. The bill is a response to the 73 million sharks that were killed last year for their fins, said Fong.
“Once the sharks die, it affects the whole ocean ecosystem,” said Fong. “It’s like a house of cards. Once the top food predator goes, the other fish in the ocean will be off balance.”
Supporters of the bill say that the increasing popularity of shark fin soup within the expanding Chinese-American middle class is the major factor contributing to the decline of the shark population, as well as to the practice of shark finning, a process that involves cutting off the dorsal and tail fins of living sharks.
Since it’s much less lucrative than fins, the rest of the body is then tossed back into the bottom of the sea where the definned sharks starve to death, according to shark biologist Victoria Vasquez, who is a director of the conservationist group SeaStewards. Although federal law prohibits sharks from coming into U.S. ports without their fins attached, a loophole permits solely importing fins. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of fins are coming through the San Francisco port, Vasquez said.
“Sharks are arguably the most important fish in the ocean,” said Vasquez. “Without them, the marine ecosystem would collapse.”
A similar law was passed in Hawaii last year that seeks to prohibit shark finning. Penalties for the possession of shark fin are severe, with fines ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 for a first offense. Last week, a similar bill was passed in the Washington State Senate and the Oregon House. Guam has also proposed bills that would ban shark fin.
But the proposed ban, even with the support from chefs and activists of the Asian Pacific Ocean Harmony Alliance, is experiencing backlash from some leaders of the Chinese-American community who argue that it’s a cultural assault on the Chinese cuisine.
Senator Leland Yee, who is running for mayor of San Francisco, argues that the bill is an “attack on Asian culture.”
“Shark fin soup has been a part of the Chinese culture for thousands of years,” said Yee. “This is another example of a long line of culturally insensitive acts toward the Asian-American community.”
Some restaurateurs from leading Chinatown restaurants aren’t willing to stop serving shark fin due to the potential loss of restaurant profits. Jason Kuang, the general manager of Four Seas Restaurant, said that taking shark fin off the menu would jeopardize the restaurant, especially since it’s one of the more popular venues in Chinatown for Chinese banquets and ceremonies.
“In my current economic situation, I have no choice but to serve it,” Kuang said. “It’s a very important dish for banquets.”
Anna Yee, co-director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, said that she condemns the practice of shark finning and encourages people to protect the environment, but believes that the bill “demonizes” Asian culture.
“A thousand years ago, we already knew how to utilize all parts of the shark,” Yee said. “Shark finning—cutting off the fins and dumping the bodies back into the ocean—is not a part of Chinese culture. This is not the way to appreciate food.”
Michael Kwong, a local seafood processor whose family has been in the seafood business since 1905, said that sharks aren’t even directly targeted by fishermen.
“Sharks aren’t targeted; they’re usually a bycatch. But when they do catch a shark, they’re going to use it,” said Kwong. “They’ll use the entire carcass.”
Chefs and leaders of the Asian Pacific Ocean Harmony Alliance (APOHA), an organization in support of the ban, represent the Asian-American community that wants to save the rapidly declining shark population. APOHA member Judy Ki, who is a retired science teacher, said that she’s happy she stopped eating shark fin soup to help save the shark population.
“I don’t think this is taking away our culture or heritage. This is an opportunity for our culture to adapt to the changing environment,” Ki said. “The issue is strictly condemning the finning, not our culture.”