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Chinese American food purveyors object to law banning shark fins

New legislation that outlaws the main ingredient in shark fin soup unfairly deprives customers of a centuries-old delicacy, California restaurant owners say. The Assemblyman who introduced the bill grew up eating the soup but called the finning of sharks a brutal practice.

October 10, 2011|By Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times
  • Dried shark fins at a Chinese specialty store in Monterey Park. The main ingredient in shark fin soup can fetch more than $2,000 a pound in California.
Dried shark fins at a Chinese specialty store in Monterey Park. The main… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

In the wake of new California legislation that outlaws the sale and possession of shark fins, some Chinese American food purveyors are objecting that the law unfairly deprives their customers of a centuries-old Asian delicacy, shark fin soup.

"Now it's just one more thing Chinese people cannot find in America," said Thai Ong, manager of Monterey Park's Wing Hop Fung, a Chinese specialty store that carries dried shark fin.

Dried shark fin, the soup's main ingredient, can sell for more than $2,000 a pound in California. Originally served only to emperors, the expensive soup has become a symbol of status and wealth and a gesture of honor to respected guests.

Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Sunnyvale) grew up eating the soup but introduced AB 376 to limit what he called a brutal practice, noting that fins are hacked off live sharks that are then thrown back into the water. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill Friday. Betty Tsang, president of the Asian Food Trade Assn., said organized petitions and protests were not fairly heard.

"Say if in the U.S. and California, nobody can eat shark-related products, yes, we are for it. But if you only target shark fin, whereas everybody else can utilize the other parts, then no, we think this is totally discriminative," Tsang said. "We just cannot accept this logic."

The ban hurts businesses, Tsang continued, estimating that restaurants lose on average about $200 per table if they do not serve shark fin soup at a banquet.

Owner Henry Ng is closing his Rosemead restaurant, Chuen Hing, at the end of the year. His establishment relies on shark fin soup orders for special occasions such as weddings and Mother's Day.

"My business is primarily selling the soup. Everything else on the menu? Secondary," Ng said in Mandarin, looking around his empty restaurant.

"Is this bill really going to stop people from killing sharks? No! They're still killing them for meat," Tsang said.

Rather than an outright ban on the sale of shark fins, Tsang suggested that legislators strengthen existing federal laws that prohibit killing sharks only for their fins.

Said Jackie Zhou, owner of the Happy Harbor restaurants in Alhambra and Rowland Heights: "It's not fair that we can't use sharks that are already killed in America for other shark products. The leftover fin? Give it to businesses that will use it."

Proponents of the ban insist that the fins are not merely "left over," as they command a far higher price than the shark's meat and provide fishermen with a strong incentive to take only the fins. Supporters of the law argue that there is no way to ensure that fishermen are using the whole shark.

The ban is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, but Brown signed a companion bill that permits vendors to sell existing stocks of shark fins until July 1, 2013.

"As a business, I don't have much to say, we'll just see how inventory looks in a year," Ong said. "But culturally … I feel sorry that the younger Chinese generation in America will not be able to appreciate this thousands-year-old tradition."

"For some, it's about status," said Kitting Chuen of Hong Kong, who's studying at USC. Chuen stopped eating shark fin soup two years ago when she read that her favorite celebrity, Hong Kong actor Sammul Chan, was against animal cruelty.

"I don't think the shark fin even has any taste; it's just in the soup. So it doesn't matter to me if restaurants don't serve it anymore," she said.

But for Zhou, "This issue is no longer just an issue of whether we can sell or not sell shark fin. This is an issue of cultural discrimination."

"We will all unite and try to contest this," he said. "We want to respect American law, but we also want to make sure our voices are fairly heard."

rosanna.xia@latimes.com

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