“Why do Chinese hate animals so much?” Racializing Discourse in Campaigns Against Shark Finning

I have come across a number of campaigns opposed to shark finning that specifically target Chinatown. For example, an event held in January was entitled “Shark March Through China Town”. In the description, it is stated that “Hong Kong is about 80% of the business for the Shark FIn Soup but YES it is Sold here in Toronto and Canada in the ‘Asian’ Restaurants” (my emphasis on the word Asia).
I am very concerned about how the issue is being conceptualized. I am a strong believer in animal liberation and have been active in the movement in the past; however, the continued lack of an anti-racism, anti-oppression framework in much of the animal liberation/environmental movement had left me feeling alienated.

An end to the trade in sharkfin is imperative. The act of cutting of fins and tossing sharks back in the water is atrocious and despicable. But the question is, how should it be opposed? For one, it would’ve been advisable to contact the various Chinese advocacy organizations in Toronto – ex. CCNC, to see how the Chinese community can get involved and more importantly, to ensure that such a campaign doesn’t essentialize and maintain the racist discourse seen in our society.

Firstly, it is highly problematic to have a campaign that targets ‘Chinatown’. The concious decision to not only choose Chinatown as a location for protest, but to use it as a major component of the discourse (ex. the title of the January event), especially by a largerly non-racialized group of activist, is troubling. We must contexualize this by critically looking at what Chinatowns across the country are. There has always been the predominant idea that ‘ethnic enclaves’ are part of processees of voluntary settlement – but Chinatowns are clearly a creation of the white supremacist ideology and the white settler state. In Vancouver, Chinatown emerged in the 19th century both through state intervention and the need for mutual defence. Copying zoning bylaws from California that barred Chinese laundries from certain areas, Vancouver city council restricted Chinese laundries – which were major social centres for the Chinese community and thus seen as “dens of iniquity” – to the spatial limits of what is today considered Chinatown. Given the fact that a large majority of the Chinese community were segregated, in terms of employment, to the laundry business, most of the community had to move within the spatial limits of Chinatown. And given the rise in discriminatory attacks by white people against the Chinese, encouraged by newspapers and individuals like Onderdonk (who managed the construction of CPR and feared cooperation between Chinese and white workers), many Chinese saw a need to congregate to defend one another (In Toronto, while we didn’t see bylaws implemented, Chinatown can be attributed to the second reason).

The idea of ‘Chinatown’ was key in the development of the Chinese as a racialized identity, as discussed by Kay Anderson’s seminal work describing how space is not only racialized, but racializes. She describes how the state of hygiene in Chinatowns contributed to the idea of the Chinese as brutish, willing to eat anything, unclean, and as spreaders of disease. However, it is clear that the space of Chinatown as unhygienic was also constructed by the white settler state. The state refused to provide basic services like garbage collection in Chinatown, despite pleas by the Chinese community. Chinatown was also pathologized when the chief medical officer categorized it as a health risk (other areas in the category included slaughter houses, landfills, etc.). Other mainly white neighbourhoods, which were in comparable condition (usually, worker neighbourhoods that have also been neglected), were never provided such classification.

The type of discourse that has been used in these campaigns have the effect of sustaining these stereotypes and constructions of the Chinese. Non-racialized activists cannot simply march into our space, a space we were forced in, and tell us what is being done in this space and why it is unethical – this reeks of ‘white man’s burden’. The discourse has essentialized the Chinese, given the lack of nuanced discussions of what shark-fin soup is. The Chinese community is not homogeneous – there are major class divides for example. Shark-fin soup is a luxury off-limits for most Chinese workers and thus, not consumed by them/pretty much most people in China.

This all reminds me of the Chinese landscape constructed by a USAToday journalist during SARS. He discussed a supposed dish called 三叫老鼠, as if it was a regular part of Chinese diet. 三叫老鼠 is indeed atrocious and involves the consuming of a live baby rat. However, it is not a food dish and instead, is considered medicine. It is also very rare, and mostly restricted to a number of rural villages. The journalist unfortunately made a suggestion that it was common and thus, reinforces the stereotype of the Chinese as willing to eat anything and being inhumane.

It is no surprise that such a discourse has led to comments like “Why do Chinese hate animals so much?” on facebook. Why is it that every time we hear of a white person committing animal abuse, or of the atrocious conditions at slaughter houses across the Western world, it is individualized or restricted to an industry; while, every time we hear of animal brutality in China, it is collectivized, and others and I are made to feel shame – as if we were all one entity?

When dealing with these issues, there needs to be a more nuanced discourse that incorporates an anti-racism and anti-oppression framework. Animal brutality is not an inherently Chinese quality. There needs to be a structural approach in issues of animal brutality and environmental degradation. For ex., the history of European colonialism of North America, ‘the drive to the West’, is closely tied to the exploitation of non-human animals (the cattle trade). The slaughterhouse industry, while being barbaric for non-human animals, is also considered an industry with the worst record in work-place injury and low wages. If we really want an end to these exploitative conditions, we must target the broader structures that create these conditions, instead, of having a discourse that scapegoats racialized peoples.