The lady and the turtle

Her outfit of shin high fireman-red rain boots, aged blue jeans, a white v-neck t-shirt and a bob of permed black hair made her look like a clammer scouring the Cape Cod bay at low tide. She was short and elderly but she moved around her market stall swiftly.

From below a table, she picked up a turtle, which retreated into its shell in flight as it was transported from a watery bucket where it rested. She nonchalantly placed the turtle on a sanded down stump of wood and turned around to continue her conversation–or bargaining–with her customer, an extremely skinny man with wrinkled eyes who had a lit cigarette hanging from his bottom lip that wagged around like a loose screw as he talked. I couldn’t follow their Cantonese dialogue.

The turtle, oblivious to the transaction going on outside–on a layer of the  universe beyond his realm of comprehension–set his feet down to feel out the new ground. After safe footing, he stuck his head out to take a look.

On that cue she grabbed a meat cleaver, an object unbefitting of her loving grandmotherly character, and decapitated the turtle without pausing her speech or taking her eyes off of her customer. The headless turtle squirmed its legs, as if to make a run for it, until they descended for fifteen long seconds into a terminal stillness.

The legs and shell were tossed into a pool of boiling water while the turtle head lay on the wooden chop-block, obviously out of context. Softened by the hot water, the turtle’s body was picked apart, opened up, artfully divided by the lady with tremendous skill and dexterity with the meat cleaver, put the pieces into a plastic bag, and then handed to the man.

This was the fish and meat market in Hong Kong. The turtle slaughter was just one tiny stall, a small component of a half kilometer of food processing. Vendors put their offerings–fish and meat that ranged from razor clams to pig snouts, ears, and hearts–on display in damp, smelly stalls that were lit by the glow of red lights. There were turtles, toads, and tuna steaks. Some of the steaks were so fresh they were still twitching. Behind the banter of the customer’s exchange, buzz saws scraped against frozen animal as they cut limbs into portions.

Sights like this are startling to see. It’s vulgar, barbaric even. We are used to collecting food from a grocery store fridge in plastic packaging. It’s too easy to forget the source. I’ve always been a believer that if you are willing to eat an animal you should also be willing to personally kill it. Not in order to be violent, dominant or aggressive, but to have a fuller understanding of cause and the effect.

I stumbled upon this market yesterday after hiking along Hong Kong island’s eastern ridge line to a beach called Tai Long Wan (Big Wave Bay). It’s amazing that a nature preserve and beautiful hiking trail is accessible within 30 minutes from the center of the city.photo 3 photo 2 photo 1

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