What’s the Story With Shark Fin Soup?

A reader named Chuck Armitage writes in with a question about which I know nothing but which I’d like to know much more.

So what do you say, readers? What do you know, and think, and what can you tell us?

Here is my question… Why is shark fin soup still popular?

Ostentation is not a trait that is normally associated with Chinese culture and yet that is what shark fin soup represents. The more expensive it gets, the more it proves that your host honors you by serving the soup. And the more the West vilifies the barbarian finning practices of the shark fisherman, the more the Chinese seem to dig in their heels and say look at your own barbaric practices before you racially attack us. There is a huge disconnect between what are normally considered admirable traits of civilized Chinese society and what is going on with this tradition.

Are the activities of the ecology activists helping or hurting their cause? How do you change the sentiments of a seemingly positive tradition when the act is causing such an ecological disaster? Is seal clubbing or factory farming as bad as shark-finning?

It is a burning issue right now and many species of sharks will go extinct if it is not solved. No matter what we do in North America, the real issue is in Asia. Even if we ban the import of shark fin here, the growing wealth in China will end the shark as we know it in our oceans.

How can this be positioned in a way that will be championed by the Chinese populace?

I cannot vouch for Chuck’s facts or assertions but I trust his questions are at least valid — although I raised a brow at his claim that “ostentation is not a trait that is normally associated with Chinese culture,” at least when I think about modern Chinese urban culture. I asked Freakonomics researcher Bourree Lam to weigh in on the shark-fin idea:

From personal experience, shark fin was a “fancy thing” in the ’80s/’90s and very much a “Keeping Up with the Joneses” item in middle class circles. Nowadays I think good red wine (from France preferably) is much more popular with the Chinese middle class. Sotheby’s and Christie’s in Hong Kong have been making a killing on wine auctions for the past couple years, but it’s been record-breaking for the Chinese market in the past year. Gold sales are also way up. Luxury purses (LV) and shark fin seem to be something just to please Grandma at weddings these days. I’m not sure that environmental activism has anything to do with it? Bird nest is very popular too, but also fading out. I think this generation of Chinese are less obsessed with that stuff, but looks like it is getting less popular.



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  1. Danny says:

    ostentation is associated with every culture, people are just ostentatious about different things in different time periods.

    i actually think the environmentalists are gaining ground, albeit slowly. it’s a long tradition that’s not going to change over night. as with all traditions, they evolve as old people die and the newer generation comes up and either can or cannot understand the reasoning for the traditions. most of the time, shark fin needs to be cooked a long period of time to make it palatable and then it needs to be cooked with stuff like dried scallop, dried shrimp, fish in order to make the soup even taste good. it’s a random dish, and hopefully one day it’ll disappear.

    but yea, if you think chinese people are not showy, just go look at the cars that the wealthy drive over there. they look EXACTLY like mercedes and bmw’s to me. ain’t no chinese rich person gonna be caught driving a clunker, unless they start a cash for clunker program 😉

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  2. Brian says:

    “Ostentation is not a trait that is normally associated with Chinese culture”? Huh? In Vancouver, at least, the local Ferrari, Bentley, Mercedes, etc. dealerships would go out of business were it not for the Chinese market. Didn’t the Wall Street Journal just run a story on Home Depot having to shut stores in China because they couldn’t convince consumers to spend money on the “interior” of their homes? It’s my impression that in Chinese culture it’s pretty much only the outward appearance that matters.

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  3. Steve says:

    I had it once, just to scratch it off the list. I was delicious, but I haven’t felt any need to ever have it again.

    If they wanted to, the Chinese government could nix the whole thing like they did for spitting in public before the Olympics.

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  4. Rachel Vickerstaff, HK Shark Foundation says:

    Shark fin is still popular amongst Chinese people and is most popularly served at wedding banquets, although commonly used in client entertainment also. From our experience, as a conservation charity lobbying at the coal face in Hong Kong (ground zero for the world’s shark fin trade), increased awareness of the environmental challenges of consuming shark fin IS causing more people to say no. Younger generations, including schoolkids, are our most fervent supporters – but they’re not in a position to challenge their elders on what gets served when. More and more people in their 20s and 30s are open-minded about the idea of not serving shark fin at their wedding – but many of them crumble in the face of stern opposition from their parents or grandparents. So, even though momentum is building, the question is – whether enough people will say no in time.
    Our approach is to show that shark-free weddings and companies as examples of positivity and sophistication, thereby implying that eating shark fin is ‘backward’ – a culturally undesirable trait.
    If anyone is interested in supporting our work, please visit http://www.hksharkfoundation.org – thank you!

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  5. Phil says:

    It is usually serve on wedding usually to pleases the older folks since it will make the host look good (i.e. got “face”) in front of the guests.

    But nowadays the young is more aware of the harm to the ecology and has try to stop consuming and/or informing their peers to do likewise.

    When I attend a wedding, I will usually not consume the dish and tell the other guest my view, hoping to influence their view on this matter.

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  6. Cindy Lee says:

    It is difficult to move all of Asia into caring for the ecological climate especially since majority of the rising bourgeoisie has been focused on industry at the expense of the environment. The Chinese regard shark fin soup as a staple in all banquets and celebrations, and to go without is considered a huge disrespect to the guests (usually the older generation). Add to how more people can now afford this stuff, I’m not sure demand will drop any time soon.

    Armed with pictures and videos and a calm persistence, I’ve convinced Grandma shark finning is brutal and she now spreads the word for me.

    I’m certain if activists and the hopeful keep at it, we can convince Asia – one grandma at a time.

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  7. John says:

    Speaking as a Taiwanese-American who’s had it probably a dozen times, shark fin has a generic salty, fishy taste and a tough texture. I’ve had vegetarian versions, and they’re just as good, if not better. I can’t speak for people in Asia, but from what I’ve seen here I think it’s really just about celebration. It’s associated with special occasions and thus valued and perpetuated for that reason.

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  8. Janus says:

    Sharks fin soup is still popular as a method of showing ‘face’ and respect to guests – it’s definitely on the decline with the younger generation, but mainly shows up at weddings and other formal functions. Similar case with abalone – a dish that people aren’t crazy about but expensive enough to display that same respect.

    First growth wines have definitely taken up the mantle these days. In Mainland China consumers are largely the newly wealthy and businessmen looking to celebrate a new deal. Hong Kong attracts a wider range of collectors across Asia – this surge has been largely due to HK abolishing its wine import tax in 2008 – which was previously at 80%.

    I raise you another eyebrow on Chuck’s comments on Chinese ostentation. Environmental activism isn’t really a driving force yet. Still remains v big business friendly

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