Every day before dawn, there is a flurry of activity in the alley behind Shanghai’s Jiangsu Hotel. One by one, scooters laden with heavy sacks pull into the narrow lane. If it wasn’t for the city’s “cat-rescuers”, no one would know that their packs are full of live cats.
Guo Ke, who wrote and filmed San Hua, China’s first documentary on the country’s cat-meat industry, learned from these merchants that Shanghai’s biggest cat trader is an elusive figure named Zhang Zhen’an. At 6am every morning, the sellers arrive in the alley to deal with his underlings. This is where the documentary starts.
At the end of July, San Hua, which was seven months in the making, premiered in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Guo Ke says his aim is to “let more people know the truth – to spread the news as far as possible”.
Filming began in December 2009, when a team of “cat rescuers” blockaded a truck loaded up with cats. One of the cat traders had told Guo Ke that the animals bought in the alley would be taken to a fruit market in Shaoxing in the neighbouring province of Zhejiang. They would then be loaded onto a truck along with cats brought from other cities, including Suzhou and Wuxi, and taken to Guangzhou.
On December 18 last year, Guo Ke and a group of activists followed one of the small trucks heading from Shanghai to that fruit market. The group originally planned to get out and speak to the driver, but the truck suddenly turned around. The driver had been on the alert and, as soon as he noticed he was being followed, had fled. A high-speed chase ensued and ended with the animal welfare campaigners blocking the truck at a toll booth.
Inside the lorry, Guo Ke saw more than 300 cats crammed into cramped wooden cages, unable to move. They were mewing pitifully, some bleeding where they had lost their tails, some already crushed into unconsciousness.
One of the volunteer cat-rescuers, Liu Xiaoyun, once bought a truckload of cats for 5,000 yuan (US$747) and found another job for the cat trader. But the man in question quickly went back to his old trade. “It’s good work, with hardly any outgoings. I couldn’t get used to any other job,” he said.
In San Hua, one anonymous cat trader asks: “What’s the use of liberating one load of cats? Even if you set all the cats in Shanghai free, you’ve still got Beijing, Tianjin, Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuxi. As long as there’s a demand, there will be buyers, and someone will go out snatching cats.”
The core demand is in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province in south-east China. The cats conveyed into the city are turned into delicacies such as soy-stewed cat, dragon-fighting-tiger (a dish combining cat and snake meat) and live-boiled cat. “Cat meat is a common dish in Guangzhou, I saw it at the Song Restaurant and Jiahua Seafood,” says Guo Ke.
According to local paper Yangcheng Evening News, the people of Guangdong eat 10,000 cats a day in the winter, a large number of which are bought or stolen in other provinces. In May, Guo Ke visited Guangzhou and used a hidden camera to film scenes of cats being slaughtered.
At Fa’s Cat Restaurant in Guangzhou’s Kaiping district, he captured boiled cat being prepared. The cook throws cats – too exhausted to struggle – into an iron bucket and beats them with a wooden stick. Five minutes later, the already-stiffening cats are tipped out of the bucket into a cylindrical fur-removing machine. The machine screeches into action and shortly the bloodied corpses are removed and taken to the kitchen for boiling.
The cook explains: “The worse you treat them the better they taste. It makes sure the blood gets into the meat and it tastes delicious.”
At Song Restaurant, Guo filmed a young chef skilfully removing cats’ heads with a single blow of his cleaver and then gutting the animals. For soy-stewed cat, the heads and guts aren’t needed, and they get thrown into an iron pail. The camera captures the still-blinking eyes of the severed heads.
“I couldn’t look when I started killing small animals – puppies, new-born calves. I used to cover my eyes with a cloth, but then I got used to it,” says the chef as he slices meat off a cat.
Two clients of the restaurant were happy to be interviewed; for them eating cat meat is completely normal. “The next generation, they’ve loved animals since they were small, and I’d tell them not to eat cat meat. But our two generations have had different educations. I don’t think there’s anything to it,” says one bookish middle-aged man.
“Cat casserole – ah, it’s delicious. You can’t get cat anywhere else. So if a friend visits, you get a lot of kudos if you take them out for cat, and they’ll remember you for it,” enthuses one somewhat rougher man as he drinks.
“Aren’t you worried about diseases, like from the civet cats?” asks Guo. [Civet cats were implicated in the 2003 SARS outbreak] “I haven’t thought about it,” the man responds. “We just want the flavour, we don’t worry about anything else.”
At the San Hua premiere in July, cat-protection campaigner Zhu Qian proposed a new idea: instead of trying to protect cats as “life”, treat them as “products” – and campaign for the prohibition of cat meat on food-safety grounds.
Zhu Qian, from Suzhou, has been rescuing stray cats for a decade and has forty at home. She has also, on three occasions, reported cat traders to the Ministry of Agriculture for forging hygiene certificates.
According to the reply from the Ministry’s Livestock Bureau, China does not yet have health standards for dog and cat meat. Zhu says: “If there aren’t any standards, then there aren’t any tests to pass, and the certificates they show are meaningless.” Animal protection societies from Suzhou and Shanghai are preparing to use the Ministry’s reply to report cat traders in Shanghai, Suzhou and Wuxi. Even if China has no animal-protection law, the responsible parties can be pursued for forging government documents, which carries a penalty of three to 10 years imprisonment.
China does not yet have a specific animal-protection law. In September last year, legal expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Chang Jiwen and others drafted proposed legislation to include a ban on the eating of cat and dog meat and punishment for animal cruelty. Huge controversy ensued. In January this year, Chang and others published a proposal for another law against the mistreatment of animals, proposing fines of up to 5,000 yuan (US$747) or detention of 15 days for illegal consumption or selling of cat and dog meat. Again, there was a strong reaction.
An Xiang, a Beijing lawyer and author of A Compilation of Existing Animal Protection Law in China, believes Zhu Qian’s approach is somewhat cold, but adds: “Without an actual animal protection law, all we can do is regard ‘companion animals’ as ‘meat products’ if we want to make any progress.”
Some animal-protection activists have high hopes for Guo Ke’s documentary, believing it will prompt legislators to reconsider. Guo himself says that humans have a natural affinity with cats, and he hopes to encourage legislation. For him, the issue is simple: “You can’t just decide an animal’s fate according to your own will,” he says.