On a fin and a prayer: Sacred sharks in the soup

Years ago, my uncle took my cousins and I out on a glass-bottom boat tour off the northeast side of Oahu. We were the only ones on that small vessel, and my uncle fell into conversation with the young man at the helm. The guy mentioned he spent a lot of time in the water amongst the sealife, so my uncle — who in childhood lost a friend to a shark attack — asked him if he ever came across those feared creatures. When the guy responded in the affirmative, my uncle asked him if that was scary. The guy said seeing a shark nearby actually made him feel safer, because in his Native Hawaiian culture, sharks are gods.

I was reminded of this moment when, on yesterday’s KQED broadcast of “Forum” covering a proposed ban on the sale and distribution of shark fins in California, it was mentioned that Hawai’i state Senator Clayton Hee had successfully passed the blueprint for this legislation in his own state. Here he is advocating for CNMI to adopt their own shark protection law (which they did last month):

What I find interesting in the case of state Senator Hee is that, according to KQED, he is of both Native Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry; therefore, he has roots in two communities who hold contrasting perspectives on sharks. One deifies them, while the other considers them a delicacy (or, more specifically, considers their fins to be the vital ingredient for a traditional soup served at large banquets and weddings).

This contrast complicates California state Senator Leland Yee’s argument that the proposed legislation here on the mainland is an attack on Asian culture and cuisine. His concerns over the “assault” on Chinese tradition feel valid, but one can also argue that this type of legislation seeks to stop another kind of assault on Native Hawaiian values.

This is not to say that California’s Chinese community uniformly agrees this constitutes an attack, either. After all, the legislation in question, AB 376, is co-sponsored by state Assemblymember Paul Fong, a Chinese American representing the state’s 22nd District. Fong participated in yesterday’s “Forum” discussion, and made it clear he felt willing to give up or at least modify the tradition of serving shark fin soup for the sake of those animals. Several other Chinese Americans called into the program to echo these sentiments.

Assemblymember Paul Fong discusses AB 376 at the Feb.-14 press conference in San Francisco. photo courtesy of Bill Wong

Earlier this week, Fong unveiled his legislation at a San Francisco press conference attended by numerous Asian American environmental advocates, including representatives from the Asian Pacific American Ocean Harmony Alliance (whose logo appears above, and whose members — it should be noted in the interest of full disclosure — include leadership of this newspaper). The formation of this alliance further demonstrates how strongly the Asian American community feels about preserving the environment, even when it comes to making tough sacrifices over our cultural heritage. Sound familiar?

P.S.: Leland Yee will likely catch some flak on this one from environmentalists, Asian and non-Asian alike, especially since he’s planning to take a shot at the mayor’s office and might be perceived as trying to pander to potential Chinatown fundraisers. It bears mentioning, however, that his record on environmental issues in the state Senate is impeccable.

About Alec Yoshio MacDonald

Alec Yoshio MacDonald is an associate editor at the Nichi Bei Weekly. His work has also appeared in Nikkei Heritage, the Pacific Citizen, Nikkei Family Magazine, the Chicago Shimpo, the East Bay Express and Hyphen Magazine. He lives in Oakland.

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