There’s a recurring flashback from my childhood that never fails to induce a blood-curdling shiver down my spine. My mother’s request for company on her monthly shopping trips to the wet market was always a Hobson’s choice, one I deeply resented because the experience was awful. Deep in the bowels of Singapore’s Chinatown complex was a large open-air market that stood in stark contrast to the surrounding glitzy skyscrapers and immaculate streets. The place was a veritable not-so-little shop of horrors and till today, those horrors remain firmly etched in my memory.
A distinctly fetid stench greets you long before entering the market; soon it becomes apparent why they’re referred to as ‘wet’. Unidentified fluids, sometimes with ribbons of red swirls, pool around your shoes, draining from the blocks of ice used to keep all the meats fresh. Storekeepers occasionally hose things down in specious attempts to disperse the suspicious-looking liquids, meaning the floor never dries. Live eels and fish slosh around in open tanks perched on prep tables where they’re bludgeoned, gutted and filleted for each customer. I once had the misfortune of standing in the Splash Zone, too close to a fishmonger who was wrestling with and descaling a snakehead (type of fish) while it was still violently flopping and gasping for air. A mixture of blood, water and flecks of fish scale rained upon me like macabre confetti.
Wet markets, like the one in Wuhan that was ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the globe, are common throughout Asia. The larger newly-industrialized cities in China play host to hundreds of such markets, providing fresh produce and meat but also functioning as social nuclei. Dubious food safety and hygiene standards aside, what made the Wuhan Seafood Market such a swarming petri dish for viral pathogens is the compendium of dead and live wildlife that were kept in close proximity, sometimes festering in their own fecal matter.
Pictures and video clips circulated on Weibo and other social media platforms showed the range of animals on sale — wolf pups, rats, peacocks, raccoons, porcupines, snakes, crocodiles and foxes, all jammed side-by-side in flimsy cages awaiting their own slaughter, making it easy for zoonotic diseases to leap from species to species and from animals to humans. Scientists believe that the pangolin, an endangered Southeast Asian mammal that looks like the lovechild of a scaly anteater and an armadillo, was the intermediary that helped bridge the novel coronavirus’s jump from its original host, bats, to humans. To date, the virus has infected more than 200,000 and killed more than 8,000 people worldwide.
The Chinese preference for wet markets and exotic wildlife has deep social, historical and cultural roots. Around 1960, Chairman Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward led to agricultural collapse and the starvation of tens of millions of people, a trauma that continues to make an indelible print on China’s collective psyche today. For one, it necessitated a scarcity mindset. Under starvation conditions, does it really matter what vessel of bodily flesh was delivering your next caloric intake? Why would you squander any body part? There’s an old Cantonese saying that goes, ‘anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible’.
The myth that freshly killed animals taste superior is very pervasive, particularly among the older generation. ‘Freshly killed hens are much better than frozen meat in supermarkets, if you want to make perfect chicken soup,’ a 60-year-old woman named Ran told Bloomberg while shopping at a Chinese wet market. ‘The flavor is richer.’ Perhaps because home refrigeration only became widespread in China in the last few decades, Chinese folks with rural roots still associate freshness with how recently the meat was slaughtered. This is why sellers keep their animals alive and only butcher them before their customers’ eyes.
As for what’s driving the demand for exotic wildlife, we need only look to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which is very widely-adopted in China and among the Chinese diaspora. Its philosophical roots can be traced all the way back to the ancient text The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, written roughly 2,000 years ago. This is the source material that lays out the various therapeutic effects of specific wild animal parts and suggests that consuming exotic meats confers wealth and status upon its devotee. What a tragedy that the 100,000 pangolins that are purged every year are sacrificed over the false belief that their scales can aid in blood circulation and cure rheumatism! Meanwhile, Beijing continues to aggressively promote TCM both internationally and domestically, in a bid to project nationalistic pride and soft power. Late last year, the state-run China Daily news website reported Xi Jinping saying that ‘traditional medicine is a treasure of Chinese civilization, embodying the wisdom of the nation and its people’. Most recently, Chinese officials have also been touting the success of deploying TCM methods to treat over half of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Hubei province, an ironic move given that it was the very indulgence of magical belief in traditional remedies that most likely caused the coronavirus outbreak in the first place.
To its credit, the Chinese government has since taken swift action to close down some 20,000 wildlife farms and punish over 2,000 people for wildlife crimes since COVID-19 broke out uncontrollably. They have also temporarily banned the wildlife trade until the epidemic is over, but not without carving out exceptions for wild animals for the purposes of TCM. Unless this loophole is closed, people can and will simply abuse the system and use TCM as an excuse to smuggle in more meat and partake in the trade.
Meanwhile, several articles have decried the problematic ways in which Chinese eating and hygiene habits have been discussed in light of the outbreak, especially because they may lead to stereotyping Chinese people as a whole for being barbaric and uncivilized. These stereotypes, they fear, will only end up fueling xenophobia and racism. The temptation here is to avoid falling into the trap of cultural relativism. It’s perfectly appropriate to criticize China’s rampant consumption of exotic animals, lack of hygiene standards and otherwise risky behavior that puts people at risk for zoonotic infections. Until these entrenched behaviors based on cultural or magical beliefs are divorced from Chinese culture, wet wildlife markets will linger as time-bombs ready to set off the next pandemic, which in a globalized age is proving only too easy to do. We already know that more than 75 percent of emerging diseases originate in animals and that in the last century, at least 10 infectious diseases jumped from animals to people. China should be aghast at its role setting off the global domino effect at Wuhan Seafood Market in late 2019.
After countless infections and death, the obliteration of trillions of dollars and the radical retooling of modern life as we know it, the least China could do is introduce higher food safety regulations, eradicate all wet markets and ban the wildlife trade, once and for all.