Years ago in Mukalla on the South Arabian coast I sometimes walked into the Customs godown in which dried fish was kept pending export. There were always quantities of large filleted fish of various varieties lying as dry and hard as planks of wood, though never quite so odourless. Amongst them was a great deal of dried shark and in a corner there would be a large pile of discarded triangular fins. I inquired what was done with them.
'They are sent to China, your honour. I ask pardon of God and your honour for mentioning it, but it is said the Chinese eat many abominable things which are not lawful to be eaten.'
I thought back to those few exiled Chinese in Pemba who used to collect sea-slugs, and the Mauritian boutique chinoise with its so-called hundred-year-old eggs, and there came to me again an old vision of epicurean mandarins in gorgeous robes embroidered with peacock feathers, hats with buttons, elegant fans, and yard-long drooping moustachios, daintily lifting morsels of birds' nests, sharks' fins, sea-slugs and other delicacies to their aristocratic lips with ivory chopsticks.
Now, in Hong Kong, as I walked with the estimable Mr. Chan along the arcaded pavements of Queen's Road West, I saw in the food shops those familiar triangular fins. There they were, large and small, just as they had been in Mukalla, and I felt sure that at least some of them must have come from that very godown.
Mr. Chan, ever anxious to eradicate false impressions, told me that one did not buy one of these triangles to make shark's fin soup, but a neat packet of stuff which looked like gelatinous macaroni, wrapped in cellulose, and with a colourful label describing the contents as best shark's fin manufactured in Hong Kong. And so he took us to a friend, the owner of a sharks' fin factory and also of a restaurant well known to the connoisseur of sea delicacies. Yin Yeng Ki, with his closely cropped head, benevolent round face, and well-filled pyjamas, was a good advertisement for the nutritive value of the fins.
His factory was in the dim upper regions of a back alley. The atmosphere was a combination of old-fashioned washhouse and boiling glue. It was hot and humid, and we paddled about in puddles of hot water. The fins are soaked overnight and then placed in boiling water for 20 minutes, after which the skin is scraped off them. This looked a rather messy process. A man with a very sharp knife sliced off the layers of meat from both sides of the fanlike bones: the work needs skill, because there is not much meat and the bigger the slice the better the quality. The bones are afterwards sold as fertilizers. The slices of meat are then pulled or cut into thin strips, boiled for a few minutes and dried with a hand-operated press. The damp strips are packed tightly into a square frame, and the frames laid on mat trays and placed on bamboo shelves under which sulphur is burnt to bleach them white. After this they are dried on the roof and are ready for packing.
It was a strange world, on the roof-tops where they dried the fins. There was something familiar about it, for it recalled drying grounds one sees all over the tropics, here for cloves or copra, there tobacco, or coffee, or cocoa. Just as if it had been on the ground, dogs wandered about and there was dry ordure, human and canine, as there would have been anywhere else. It is just as well all these things we eat from the tropics go through a lot more stages before we consume them! None of the space was wasted. A neighbouring roof had strips of pigskin hanging from lines. It is put into oil afterwards to soften it and is said to make excellent food.
There are about thirty of these sharks' fin factories in Hong Kong. In Yin's factory the employees were mostly apprentices earning £5 a month plus food and lodging. They slept where they worked, and each boy had his towel hanging on a hook on the wall, with a tube of toothpaste and soap-box perched on top. The boys had a very steamed and bleached appearance.
Many countries provide fins for the famous soup: Ceylon, Burma, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Korea, Norway, Cuba, Indonesia, South America, East Africa, West Africa, North Borneo, French Indo-China, Macao, Iran. When you come to think of it shark's fin soup and other shark products take quite a toll of these unpleasant beasts.
At Yin's restaurant we sat in his private balcony room overlooking the café. This arrangement is common in Hong Kong shops and enables the proprietor to be simultaneously in the middle of his family and at his business. The cook was introduced and we were given a recipe for the soup. Put a packet of fins in boiling water and soak until soft, then drain. Put five ounces of lard into a frying-pan and when melted add two ounces of crushed ginger, 11/2nces of sliced onion, and the fins, then fry for about 10 minutes. Add sufficient cold water to cover (a Chinese frying-pan is deeper than ours) and boil for 10 to 15 minutes. Take out and drain. Serve with chicken or meat broth. This last is very important because sharks' fins are quite tasteless by themselves and must be served in a good broth.
No Chinese dinner-party is complete without this soup, for with it the dinner proper begins; the courses before the soup are merely appetizers. In the arrangement of menus, as in so many other things, the Chinese go the opposite way to us, for after the preliminary courses, which may include sea foods or salads, and the shark's fin soup, you have meat or poultry, or both, then fish, then another soup, and sometimes end up with a sweet dish. There are very definite preferences in the choice of meat and poultry. Pork is No. 1 choice, then beef, with mutton (at any rate among the Cantonese) as a bad last. The smell of mutton is so disliked by some Chinese that they just cannot eat it. Our local butcher at home got so used to our ringing up to ask for beef at the week-end when expecting Chinese friends, that he used to ring first to inquire 'Have you any Chinese visitors?' before sending the ration. As for poultry, the Chinese consider chicken the best, then wild duck, duck, goose, and turkey a bad last.