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What’s With All The Weird Diseases?

The 19th century wasn’t good to the Chinese and remnants of their “I am so fucking hungry I will eat anything” culture still exist today.
December 1, 2003, 12:00am

Yes, those are dogs. Photo by the author.

When I heard all about how SARS was a "zoonosis" virus that could be caused by eating unclean, disease-ridden exotic animals, I suddenly thought back to the news of Mad Cow, when experts had linked its most basic origins to an expensive Chinese restaurant in London that was serving illegal tiger meat. Having lived in South China for a long time, I wasn't surprised. The 19th century wasn't good to the Chinese, and remnants of their "I am so fucking hungry I will eat anything" culture still seem to exist today, 150 years later. For gross-out thrills, I would often stroll down the teeming alleyways of Guangdong market, where street traders would cook and sell the meat of pretty much any animal they could lay their hands on. I'm talking about steaming pots of tiger cocks next to bamboo birdcages filled with white kittens. Or how about stacks of wire chicken coops confining puppies, raccoons, rats, peacocks, pythons, vultures, and owls? There'd also be swine and fowl fighting over rotten cabbage leaves on a floor gooey with a Noah's Ark of blood, shit, and animal phlegm. To top it all off, the cooks would sit amongst all this filth while preparing broths and stews from bear claws, yak heads, and monkey brains. To my eyes, there were absolutely no environmental health control laws enforced anywhere. The rule, to this day, is very clear: "If it moves, eat it." And don't forget to keep the animal alive as long as possible—preferably while still eating it, so you can fully take in the myriad rancid animal diseases floating through the putrid atmosphere. Oh yeah, if it doesn't taste good the animal probably didn't die a painful enough death. That's another fucked up belief. Because I was worried about my exposure to the filthiest scene on earth, I recently spoke to my friend Bi Shengli, who's the vice-director for viral diseases at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in London. "We're exploring further if the SARS disease was passed to human beings from wild animals," he said. "We all know Guangdong people like eating exotic animals, and we all know it's not a healthy practice at all." I'm not saying that simply eating barbequed dog paw, broiled dog with ginger and orange peel, deep-fried dog intestine stuffed with dog liver and lemon herbs, cat juice, yak-head stew, jungle-rat crackling, vulture and owl pie, tiger-penis kebab, snake and leopard soup, roast bear, and raw monkey-brain soufflé, and eating them under no health standards whatsoever––I'm not saying that could lead to an incredibly elusive and dangerous epidemic, but come on. Didn't the bubonic plague come from rats?