As you can tell by the photo caption it is time to celebrate another new year in China. There are twelve designations for Chinese years, Shǔ – Rat, Niú – Ox, Hǔ – Tiger, Tù – Rabbit, Lóng – Dragon, Shé – Snake, Mǎ – Horse, Yáng – Goat, Hóu – Monkey, Jī – Rooster, Gǒu – Dog & Zhū – Pig, and they rotate on a predictable schedule. This year is the year of the Shé or Snake. For the record, I was born in the year of the ox. That makes me a good friend to people born in the year of the snake. Yet more trivia you didn’t need. In America snakes get a bad rep. Of course, with the whole Florida python hunt going on it’s easy to see why. First, because the snakes are winning (authorities have been forced to air lift out injured hunters) and, second, because the idea of letting untrained, heavily armed, people loose in a swamp was really dumb in the first place. But that’s placing undue blame on our reptilian cousins. As noted on How Stuff Works, “Snakes do plenty of good things, especially for farmers. Snakes eat mice, rats, gophers, and other small mammals that eat farm crops. Snakes also help scientists and doctors. Snake venom is used in research and in making medicines. One medicine made from venom helps treat certain types of heart attacks.” Snakes also aerate the soil which makes crops grow better. So, as you can see, snakes are a pretty cool friend of man. Well, unless they’re poisonous and they bite you. Then they aren’t so nice. But only 15% of all species are poisonous so the odds are in your favor. Unless you’re in Florida on that hunt surrounded by deadly water moccasins. Yes, those people are a whole new level of stupid.
Anyway, 2013 is the year of the snake. The Chinese web site, Han Ban, has a nice primer on what that means.
The Introduction of 2013 Year of Snake
2013 is the year of the black Snake begins on February 10th shortly after the New moon in Aquarius, the humanitarian of the zodiac. This 2013 year of Snake is meant for steady progress and attention to detail. Focus and discipline will be necessary for you to achieve what you set out to create. The Snake is the sixth sign of the Chinese Zodiac, which consists of 12 Animal Signs. It is the enigmatic, intuitive, introspective, refined and collected of the Animals Signs. Ancient Chinese wisdom says a Snake in the house is a good omen because it means that your family will not starve.
The Common Character of People Born in the Year of Snake
People born in the Year of the Snake are reputed to be thoughtful and wise and to approach problems rationally and logically, seldom instinctively. Such people are complex beings, they are clever and men of few words from their birth. Their business is always going well, but they are stingy very often. They are sometimes egoistic and conceited. However they can be very active in their friends’ life. They are often too active, not believing other people and relying only on themselves. Snakes are also very insightful and naturally intuitive. If anyone has a sixth sense, it’s those born in the Snake year. This is partly what makes them so mysterious. Snakes come in all varieties of colors and patterns. And maybe that’s why people born in the Snake year love to appreciate beauty. People with the Chinese zodiac snake sign are very stylish, fashionable and have exceptional taste. People born in the Year of the Snake also have a sure touch in money matters but are also inclined to be greedy and somewhat egoistical. Determined and ambitious characters of Snakes take their failures hard. They are usually very attractive on the outside and inwardly, that, taking into consideration their frivolity, can lead to some family problems.
In other words, they’re a mix between Donald Trump and Conan O’Brian.
Yeah, I’m a bit uncomfortable with that too.
But as reliable as Chinese horoscopes are change still occurs, And, sadly, an era is dying in China. The last generations of snake kings are fading into history.
When a king cobra lunges at Chau Ka-ling as the door to its wooden cage falls open in her busy Hong Kong restaurant, she just laughs, then pulls it gently into her arms.
For Chau is a “snake king,” one of scores in Hong Kong who have through generations tamed snakes to make soup out of them, a traditional cuisine believed to be good for the health.
Yet the people behind providing fresh snakes for the savoury meal thought to speed up the body’s blood flow and keep it strong in the cold winter months may be doomed, with young people increasingly reluctant to take on a job they see as hard and dirty.
“He is my boss, he supports my living,” said Chau of the snake she cradled at Shia Wong Hip, a popular shop that serves over 1,000 bowls of hot snake soup on the busiest winter days.
Trained by her father in childhood to handle snakes, Chau, now in her early 50s, took over the business he founded, serving up a small bowl of soup for 35 Hong Kong dollars (2.8 pounds).
From boiling the essence out of snake, chicken and pig bones, to spicing it up with an array of ingredients that include five types of snake meat, the traditional southern Chinese snack can take more than six hours to make.
Yet as the cold deepens in the weeks leading up to the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Snake it ushers in on February 10, Hong Kong locals huddle inside small street shops like hers.
The thick soup is flavoured with hints of lemongrass, while the snake itself tastes like chicken but is tougher.
“Snake soup can help you stay healthy, and when the weather is cold it helps keep you from catching the flu,” said customer Stephen Lau.
While soup stalls remain popular, scattered across the former British colony, retail snake shops have diminished to a slithery few, such as the 110-year-old She Wong Lam.
Inside, more than 100 snakes lie quietly in wooden cupboards labelled “poisonous snakes” as the clicks of an abacus echo through the dimly lit shop.
Shop owner Mak Tai-kong, 84, has been working there for 64 years. He sells an average of 100 snakes a week to restaurants and snake soup shops that could otherwise buy pre-butchered meat, but prefer the freshness he offers.
Over the decades, he has trained about 20 people to become snake handlers – and said he has a few tried and true tips to help people put aside their fear of the venomous creatures, including starting them out on snakes whose fangs have been pulled and thus are no longer dangerous.
“Then, after he has been bitten a couple times by a snake that is no longer poisonous, he will think, ‘Oh, this is not painful, this is nothing, this is like being bitten by an ant,'” Mak said.
“Then he will no longer be scared, and as he works more he will get more used to it.”
But new blood is hard to find. The youngest employee in the shop has now been there more than 30 years.
“There won’t be many. Firstly, it’s crummy and dirty, and snakes smell,” Mak said. “Secondly, the wages aren’t high. So not many people enter the field.”
Mak feels his job is less about making money and more about providing a service to society by keeping a tradition alive.
Yet even fellow “snake king” Chau says she has no successors trained, and in fact has refused to do so.
“I’ve killed snakes for so many year, but actually I don’t want to. Because there are fewer and fewer snakes now,” she said. “But I can’t make a career change. There’s nothing else I can do.”
I have had fresh snake soup. It is everything they claim and more. It is flat out delicious. I have also had the more common processed variety. While okay, it is nowhere near the same. But that doesn’t mean I am going to pack to go to Hong Kong to work for minimum wage and handle poisonous reptiles. And, sadly, neither are millions of Chinese youth.
Simply put, an era will die and we will mourn its passing knowing full well that its demise was a conscious choice.
So, while you still can, head on over to Ser Fong’s in Hong Kong (you can’t get fresh snake soup in the US) and enjoy a treat. It’s worth the trip.
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