Hong Kong snake dealers fear SARS may spell their demise

Friday, May 30, 2003

HONG KONG -- Tucking into a lunch of slivered snake meat, Terry Yu said Thursday he enjoys the flavor and he's not scared of SARS.

"It smells good," said Yu, a marketing manager who relishes snake year round, though most locals prefer it in the cooler weather that begins around October.

But Hong Kong's snake dealers are worried that a mainland Chinese crackdown on wildlife markets full of wiggling serpents and other exotic species -- some potentially carrying the SARS virus -- could doom their industry by cutting off the supply.

That would be bad news for Yu and other snake lovers who frequent a traditional snake eatery operated by Chau Ka-ling -- dubbed the "Snake Queen" by Hong Kong media -- who inherited the business from her father.

Snake wine is also on offer at her restaurant, Shie Wong Hip, which is decorated with a stuffed cobra and clippings of old news photos that show Chau handling snakes she helped capture after they got loose in town.

The Chinese view snake as a "winter warming food," and some say eating snake also has aphrodisiac or medicinal benefits.

Snake specialists typically display their serpents live, coiled and hissing in cages. Nearly all of them come from the southern mainland province of Guangdong, where SARS is believed to have originated in November.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome has now sickened more than 8,200 people worldwide and killed about 750, with the biggest numbers in mainland China and Hong Kong.

After researchers found the SARS virus in three types of game animals -- civet cats, raccoon dogs and badgers -- mainland Chinese officials have been raiding markets and seizing game animals, including snakes. Chinese researchers believe the disease might also be carried by snakes and bats, according to reports in mainland state-run media.

Any ban on China's snake trade could spell disaster for Hong Kong's 70-odd snake shops, merchant Ho Cheuk-hing told The Associated Press by phone.

"Every snake shop will be put out of business," Ho said from his store, She Wong Lam, which translates into the "Snake King," a fairly standard name for such businesses in the former British colony.

Hong Kong dealers are convinced their imported snakes are free of the SARS virus. They insist snake is delicious and healthful. To keep snake consumption safe, they recommend that people eat the meat only after it's fully cooked.

"If anyone would get sick, we'd be the first," Chau said as hungry customers trickled into her shop for afternoon snake snacks.

"This stuff is good," said Law Sun-po, 32, sipping on some snake gall wine and declaring it better than beer.

An elderly lady, surnamed Miu, said she eats orange peel soaked in snake gall like cough drops. "Every time I my throat gets itchy, I take a bite or two," Miu said.

Worried Hong Kong snake dealers might be lucky the crackdown on wildlife markets came when it did, as summer is a traditionally slow time for the industry. Most snake dealers have sold their yearly supply, and some have closed for the season.

So they may have time to ride out the crisis, or seek out other suppliers if necessary.

But Ho said he'll have to "play it by ear" when the peak snake season begins in October.

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