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So near yet so feared: where a dog's dinner

Cecilie Gamst Berg

 

You know when you see something and it registers subconsciously as being not quite right? I had one of those moments in a remote Sichuan village when L and I were sauntering through a wintry field and saw two guys taking a dog for a walk.

"Ahhh, that's nice," I thought, being a dog lover. Then I caught myself. Mainland villagers don't take dogs for walks. Suddenly I remembered the boiling cauldron I'd seen only 10 minutes earlier, the one I'd dimly registered: "There's a boiling cauldron in the middle of a field. Wonder what that's for."

Yes, there are many ways to skin a dog, one of which is to pop it alive in boiling water. The favoured methods of killing canines on the mainland, however, are usually more drawn-out: hanging, stabbing, leg-breaking and slowly beating the dog to death, all release adrenaline into the meat. The more terrified the dog is before and during being killed, the better its meat will taste, is the idea.

One of my first practical lessons in Putonghua was in Shanghai in 1988, when I thought a guy asked me if I liked dogs. I said I loved them, and he promptly went out and bought a kilo. I hadn't caught the word for "eat". It tasted, as expected, like chicken (albeit with a dash of reindeer), but was very gristly and full of little bones.

A common Westerner-in-China quip when eating, for example, beef noodles is, "Bwa-ha-ha, this is probably the cook's dog". Er, no, because if it were dog it would be proudly announced at the top of the menu as the most expensive dish and there'd be a big sign outside featuring a smiling Labrador.

The dog-as-food industry in China is growing fast, ironically as more people keep dogs as pets.

Another time in Sichuan, L and I got on a sleeper bus with no other passengers. We were congratulating ourselves on the ease with which we had secured tickets when a terrible sound froze my blood. It was dogs, dozens and dozens of dogs, crying for help in the luggage hold under our feet. The bus was going through the countryside collecting dogs for dinner tables all around the county. That's why the trip was so cheap. When the bus stopped and a pick-up truck pulled up full of dogs trussed up with metal wire, some of it through their noses, we decided to escape this hellish torture chamber and get a train, or hire a private plane: anything to get away from the screaming and whimpering and pleading eyes.

I mostly eat chicken nowadays: they taste of it more than anything else ever will. And whoever heard of chickens risking their lives to drag people out of burning buildings?

 

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