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    Chinese show their passion for dogs

    RED MEAT: One man's best friend becomes another one's meal in ever-increasing numbers as dog farms are springing up around the country to keep up with demand

    Sunday, Jul 08, 2001, Page 1

    A worker at the Dawn Fine Bred Meat Dog Center in the city of Peixian checks on puppies destined for the dinner table.
    The people of Peixian love their dogs.

    At seven each morning a crowd of local residents gathers under dusty roadside awnings on a street corner for their favorite breakfast: a bowl of steaming soy milk and a piece of pita-like flat bread wrapped around a rasher of dog.

    "I eat breakfast here a couple times a month," Zhu Xinyong said recently as he chewed on a wad of oily reddish meat, pulled from the bone by hand.

    Before pooch lovers revolt, or grow revolted, they should know that this has been going on here for about 2,000 years.

    It started with Liu Bang, first emperor of the Han dynasty, who liked the taste of dog meat. Before becoming emperor he was an official here in Peixian, in today's Jiangsu Province, and frequented a local dog restaurant run by a man named Fan Kuai.

    But Liu Bang never paid for his meals, so Fan Kuai moved his restaurant to the far side of a nearby lake, taking all of the boats with him to prevent Liu Bang from crossing the water.

    When Liu Bang arrived at the lakeside, though, legend has it that a giant turtle emerged and carried him across, infuriating Fan, who killed the turtle, chopped it up and threw it into his dog meat stew. As punishment, Liu Bang confiscated Fan's knives, and the restaurateur was forced to use his hands to carve cooked dogs after that.

    Ever since, turtle-flavored, hand-pulled dog meat has been a local specialty. It can be bought, vacuum-sealed in plastic and boxed in gift packs, at the airport in nearby Xuzhou.

    However shocking to Westerners, the use of dogs in northeast Asian cuisine has gone on just about as long as there have been men and dogs in the region. It is a specialty meat in many parts of China, eaten occasionally in the winter for its supposed warming quality. But it is regular fare in Peixian.

    "I eat it every day," said Han Fei, Peixian's biggest dog breeder and most likely China's, too. He describes himself as the "dragon head" of the industry, raising 100,000 dogs a year, almost all for slaughter at about six months of age.

    Eating dog just about died out during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, when Red Guards rampaged through the country killing dogs, even those raised for food, because of their stigma as an extravagance of the bourgeoisie. The slaughter in Peixian left "dead dogs everywhere," Han recalled, waving flies away from his lunch, a plate of boiled dog sprinkled with peppercorns.

    But dog meat is increasingly available now, and its popularity is growing as people become wealthier and their diets diversify: dog meat is one of the most expensive meats available in the country today.

    To keep up with demand, dog farms have been springing up around the country and dog breeders have been experimenting with crossing larger foreign breeds with the leaner Mongolian dogs long favored for their meat.

    Nowhere in China is that more common than in Peixian, a town where huge, amateurish portraits of collies and shepherds, spaniels and hounds stare out from walls everywhere.

    Han raised his hand at his Dawn Fine Bred Meat Dog Center to encourage a bony Newfoundland to stand on its hind legs behind the rusty iron bars of its concrete pen.

    "Crossbreeds grow faster," the taciturn Han said above the woof of Saint Bernards, Great Danes and Dalmatians penned in a long, bleak row.

    The use of these breeds, particularly Saint Bernards, has outraged dog devotees in the West. One organization, called SOS Saint Bernard Dogs International, presented a petition signed by 11,000 people to the Swiss government in February, asking that the government intervene to stop China's use of "the most faithful friend of humans" for food.

    The Swiss government expressed sympathy but said diplomatic interference was not "appropriate" in what was essentially a cultural matter.

    The Saint Bernard advocates have since taken their case to the International Olympic Committee, asking its president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, to turn down China's bid to be the host of the 2008 Olympics because of the country's culinary use of a breed that has saved so many human lives.

    But the outcry abroad has not reached Peixian, where residents seemed puzzled when told of the campaign. The foreign breeds come mostly from Russia, Han said. And they are not eaten, in any case, because purebreds are too valuable and all dogs taste pretty much the same.

    A pedigree Saint Bernard or Dalmatian, for example, costs more than US$1,000. Crossing one of those dogs with a local bitch produces two litters of eight to 10 puppies a year. Each crossbred puppy grows to about 50kg in six months, when it can fetch about 400 yuan, (nearly US$50), half of that profit.

    "It's twice as profitable as raising pigs," Han said.

    There is not plenty for dog lovers to complain about in Peixian, where 300,000 dogs are butchered a year, half for local consumption and half for export to other parts of China and both Koreas.

    But the killing of animals in any country is never pretty.

    In a small village of brick-walled courtyards not far from Han's farm, Wang Junhua showed a visitor where he slaughters and skins as many as 20 dogs at a time: a series of bloody puddles beneath a crossbeam affixed to a line of weeping willow trees.

    After it is slaughtered and skinned, the dog is quartered and soaked in cold water for about an hour before cooking. Wang stews his dog in a huge galvanized cauldron -- head, paws, tails and all. The intestines are stuffed into the stomachs and stewed.

    As Wang fished in the cauldron for a dog's hindquarters, two large black masses of herbs wrapped in cheesecloth rolled to the surface.

    He sells the dog hides to factories that make dog-fur hats, fur-lined pants and vests and even blankets favored by peasants during the frigid months.

    He delivers the meat to restaurants and street vendors around town each morning before the breakfast crowd. The vendors set a meaty skull up on the edge of their baskets to beckon passers-by.

    Under the awnings, a woman holding her toddler stopped to buy two sandwiches from a man who pulled the meat from a dog's rib cage, his fingers glistening with grease. No one seemed upset by the spooked look of the live dogs bound for slaughter, their ears flattened and heads lowered, with anxiety in their shiny black eyes.

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