December 22, 2003 was a memorable day for Zhang Xingguo, a certified first chef. Over a hundred local chefs headed by Zhang signed their names on a declaration in Calabash Island City (Huludao), Liaoning Province, vowing not to cook wildlife all through their career as chefs. It was a day that Zhang had anticipated for a very long time - the plight of Zhang from 1996 to 1998 was perhaps no better than that of disappearing wildlife. Because he refused to cook wildlife, Zhang was sacked by 12 restaurants, yet he had stuck to his words and his long cherished dream: to get all the chefs in the nation involved in a battle against cooking wildlife.
Zhang used to live in Dongping county of Shandong Province. At the age of 8, he happened to save a turtle dove with broken wings. Under his tender care, the bird recovered in two weeks and he set it free. Not long after the bird's departure, Zhang was happy to find that the bird was back again - to permanently nest in the big tree by to his house. In four years, the family had grown into several dozen members. An amazingly trustful relationship developed between these birds and Zhang. When Zhang opened his arms, the birds would joyfully perch on his arms and shoulders. "They can even understand my words," said Zhang proudly.
In 1991, Zhang went to study cooking in Fushun city, Liaoning Province, after high school graduation. Four years later, when he returned to his hometown, he was dismayed to see that the chirping of birds was heard no more and the fish had almost disappeared from the rivers. It was a crazy time, when wildlife was extremely popular with diners around the country. Zhang was sad that the harmony between nature and human beings was gone without a trace. Starting from this appalling find, Zhang became resolute that he would never cook a single wildlife dish.
This promise was a major challenge to Zhang - in the mid-1990s, over 95 percent of the restaurants in Fushun city served wildlife dishes. Snakes, cranes, pangolin, hedgehogs and pheasants - anything edible went straight into the pot. To the restaurant owners, profit was everything, while the voice of nature sounded so weak.
As for Zhang, he had to constantly transfer to new restaurants to avoid the bloody killing. He was considered a weirdie and a fool - veteran chefs like him could earn high salaries in big restaurants, while Zhang was still scrabbling for a living. Zhang was even beaten up by one restaurant manager because he refused to cook wildlife. In the most destitute days, when Zhang was unemployed, he could hardly afford a bus ticket, let alone the rent. If it hadn't been for his girlfriend, Zhang would have ended up penniless in a strange city.
In 1999, Zhang finally got a job in Dalian city, which he kept until 2002. As the nation gradually started to become aware of the importance of maintaining a balance between nature and mankind, Zhang could manage his life more easily.
In January 2002, the Wildlife Conservation Association of China and a food magazine launched a grand movement, calling on professional chefs in China to protect rare wild animals and never to cook wildlife. Zhang was more than happy to know this and immediately applied to be a voluntary representative chef of this movement. Six months later, Zhang was elected "Green Chef Ambassador" to publicize their cause. In 2002, SARS attacked, and wildlife was increasingly suspected to be the source of the disease. This made it easier for Zhang to get his message across to restaurants, other chefs and the general public.
In Calabash Island city, which was his first stop on an educational tour, Zhang visited almost all the local restaurants. "Men should respect wild creatures - the birds, camels, antelopes, bears and golden monkeys, which are part of nature. Without them, human existence would be meaningless."
Zhang patiently tried to reason with the chefs, restaurant managers and customers. To Zhang's satisfaction, the city is realizing the unbreakable tie between men and nature and more and more people are getting involved in this campaign.
Zhang is currently planning to tour south China's Guangdong and Fujian provinces, where wildlife conservation still has a long way to go, and rare animals are still popular items on the menu. Zhang refuses to be discouraged and will persevere in his mission until all the people in China see wildlife as part of the beautiful family of life, not as things to eat, regardless of whether they could disappear forever.
(CRI January 18, 2004)