<A>Restaurant Karma

Written by May 9, 2005 14:05
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The first thing I noticed as we walked through the entrance to the restaurant was a Chinese chef picking up a live fish from a tank and attempting to kill it by throwing it repeatedly on the cement, in preparation for cooking. Needless to say the scaly, silver aquatic morsel was none too happy about being battered repeatedly on the ground. It was making every effort to swim and squirm and flap itself to safety and it took a good dozen hurls to the floor to subdue the main course. The second thing I noticed was a huge pink and orange octopus, slushing about in its own slime on the pavement less than a foot away from my leg, eyes bulging, tentacles writhing, trying to get back to its tank to avoid being turned into calamari. Thus began my first meal on Putuo Shan, a holy Buddhist island just off the coast of China.

Now don't get me wrong, since coming to China I've visited many weird and wonderful restaurants. I've eaten in rubble strewn kitchens that have more in common with war torn Kosovo than places of dining, Buddhist monasteries where you must devour every single atom of food given to you for fear of offending the monks, and establishments where its perfectly normal to eat lambs' penis. But as I watched the Chef chase after the entree with a cleaver as it slowly dragged itself along the ground with long feeling tentacles, gasping for breath, I knew this place was different.

Putuo Shan is quite a beautiful island, with many beaches and temples and forested mountains. It is somewhat of a Mecca for Chinese tourists because of its status as one of the five holy mountains in China. Located just 6 hours by boat from Shanghai and 2 hours from Ningbo, Putuo Shan is often swarming with Chinese tour groups, their leaders waving brightly colored flags and screaming through megaphones at their particular flock. So we found ourselves during the busy May Day holiday amongst crowds of photo-taking tourists and shouting tour guides, trying desperately to find a hotel, nearly all of which were booked out.

Thus we came across the aforementioned seafood restaurant, with halls full of people dining on freshly beaten seafood downstairs, and small hotel rooms on the top two floors. Seeing foreign faces looking intently at her establishment the landlady of the hotel/restaurant beckoned us in promising us cheap rooms and cheap seafood, a specialty of the island. So we stepped cautiously past the pulsating octopi and thrashing fish, and she gave us a smile and led us upstairs. She could sense the desperation in our eyes, we had nowhere else to stay and we were tired and hungry, and it didn't take her long to begin separating us from our hard earned cash. After half an hour haggling over the price, which of course had nearly doubled due to the fact that we weren't Chinese, we poured into our rooms and tried to refresh ourselves with the luke-warm trickle of the shower.

The sounds of laughter and eating wafted up from the restaurant downstairs, and despite the obvious animal rights abuses we had witnessed our stomaches got the better of us. As we descended into the orgy of fish munching the landlady spied us again and ushered us to the red plastic tubs of marine life sitting stagnant on the floor, the gleam of opportunity in hers eyes. So with her assurances of taste and quality we selected a plump flounder, fresh mussels, several scallops and a large silver fish of the kind we had seen getting thrashed as we entered.

The chef ran in with a smile on his face, fished out the doomed creatures from the tank and then promptly handed them to us still very much alive and kicking. Still grinning from ear to ear he mimed lifting the fish above our heads and dashing them upon the concrete. All eyes turned to me, and my eyes turned to the spiny scaly sea beast angrily protesting being removed from the water, writhing in my fingers. With a peer pressure induced sigh, I said a fond farewell to my watery friend and smote him upon the concrete, and soon everyone was joining in, kicking the living crap out of their respective meals.

After a good ten minutes of old fashioned barbarity we calmed down and washed our hands, and presently the fish were brought out to us, no longer lively and energetic but now steaming and seasoned and delicious. So we ate and drank and feasted on the poor creatures that we had helped to die, like brutal hunters gloating over their kill. We slurped mollusks straight from the shell, still living, and chewed on the soft fluffy muscle of the animal that only a few minutes before had been living in my hands. But the gods of karma smiled a grim smile as they looked down on us, six foreigners who had brutally killed and feasted on a living thing, and they planned their quick revenge. For in our haste to pulverize our seafood we had forgotten the golden rule of traveling in China: always ask the price!

We sat, bellies full of beer and ill gotten food and then it arrived. The bill. The meal of two fish and some mussels and rice cost us 900 yuan! 900! We knew the meal should at the most be 150 yuan, but what could we do? We'd already eaten the food. The landlady smiled, she'd got us. She had ensnared another group of gullible foreign tourists and would squeeze until there was no money left in their already depleted bank accounts. We quickly ran to some of the other seafood restaurants on the island to ask them the price of their fish, to force the landlady to admit she was ripping us off. But it was all to no avail, the other restaurant owners could tell that we were had, and we later found out that the landlady herself had gone to some of the closer restaurants to tell them not to help us. I'd like to be able to complain but we deserved it, and it was a very much poorer band of backpackers that went to bed that night.

The moral of the story? A holy Buddhist island is not the best place to commit heinous acts of animal cruelty. You will pay for it.

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