Music'al Notes

Dog Day

“Give this to the taxi driver when you leave the hotel.”

The note read, in Chinese and English:  Dog Meat Street!

A few years ago I visited China to attend the Guangzhou hi-fi show. It was held in the White Swan Hotel. The White Swan is located on Shamian Island on the banks of the Pearl River.  Shamian Island was used for defense purposes during the first and second opium wars. Later it became home to many European consulates. The US consulate was there until 2013.

The White Swan was, because of its proximity to the US Consulate, the last stop for families adopting Chinese kids. The lobby, dining rooms and corridors were filled with young children, babies to 7 year olds, being constantly followed by overweight American adopters. Some of the little ones were sullen and withdrawn but most were delightful. It was a heartwarming scene.

The hotel is less gaudy than most of the Chinese hotels I have stayed in. The views from the rooms can be spectacular, depending on the air quality, which can be lousy. Guangzhou is one of the most polluted cities in China; one night, while walking back to the hotel I suddenly felt really ill. My chest tightened and I couldn’t breathe. My first thought was, I’m having a heart attack. My second thought was, I’m having a heart attack in China! I was about a hundred yards from the hotel so I willed myself inside. As I staggered up to the door it opened automatically and a rush of cold air hit me. I took a deep breath and instantly recovered. The pollution had used up the oxygen in the air and almost killed me. I really feel for the people living there. It’s worse than the industrial pollution I grew up with as a child in Glasgow in the fifties.

In Guangzhou, it is said, people eat anything with four legs, except a chair. I have eaten many things over the years: scorpions, ants, worms, grasshoppers, whole tiny birds about 2 inches long, snakes, big black beetles the size of large cockroaches, (the subject of another tale) but I had never tried dog. Let me clarify from the outset that I am a dog lover and have had dogs all my life, but the lure to try something different was too appealing. Before readers recoil, remember that many people keep pigs, rabbits, chickens, goats, mules, sheep and even miniature cows as pets while the rest of us see no problem thinking of those animals as dinner. As far as I can tell, the Chinese breed one type of dog for consumption. It’s yellow, weighs about 30 lbs. and is hairless. I decided I would try and find a dog restaurant. Not one of my friends or the hotel concierge could help me so I ended up eating homemade noodles and spicy beef in a Muslim restaurant. It was delicious.

The next day I flew to Guilin for a few days vacation. Guilin is a human-sized town, a welcome relief from densely overpopulated Guangzhou. It is famous for cruises on the River Li. From the boats you can see dramatically vertical limestone outcroppings, the very tall hills often depicted in Chinese paintings. Also visible on the river are boatmen fishing with cormorants. The fisherman put snares on the bottom of the birds’ necks so small fish can pass through but the bigger ones get stuck and are then retrieved.  I had a guide on the boat and after the tour, I asked him about dog restaurants. He thought for a moment and handed me the note to give to the taxi driver.

Dog Meat Street turned out to be a small alleyway a little bit off the beaten path. There were about a half dozen restaurants next to each other. To my great relief there was no sign of a dead dog or, as a friend, who had gone to one warned, the front half of a dog welcoming you. All the restaurants sported a large wok outside filled with cooked dog meat. It was chopped up into small pieces but some parts were recognizable. I chose the busiest establishment and sat down. A waiter approached. I speak only a couple of words of Mandarin and he spoke no English. I looked him in the eye and said, “Woof woof?” He nodded and left. A few moments later, he returned with a small burner, a wok, a portion of cooked dog meat, some broth, tofu and vegetables. He showed me how to put all the ingredients in the wok and left me to figure out how to cook it. I let it bubble until the vegetables were cooked through and started eating. Though the pieces were small and tender, the meat was very bony and you had to work hard to eat it. Those of you who have eaten a chicken neck will understand.

A few minutes later, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked around and behind me was a large circular table with about ten men eating. They all were holding glasses of beer and proceeded to give me a toast. I guess they don’t get many round eyes in this place. I called over the waiter, pointed to my beer and then to the table instructing him to send a round of beer to them. After he served the beer, one of the men invited me to their table. I brought over my food and we shared our meal. It was very jolly and we drank lots of beer and talked for about 2 hours. We had no common language but as the beer flowed it seemed to not to matter. All in all, it was a great evening.

And how was the food? It tasted a lot like lamb.