On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Culinary battle far from fin-ished

That special relationship between the two men led to China-born Chan and his family moving to Malaysia, where he eventually became a citizen. It was Chan who helped several Malaysian footballers, such as Chow Chee Keong and Lim Fung Kee, when they turned professional in Hong Kong during the 1970s .

A well-connected man, with links to political and business circles in southern China, his passions are football and food. He talked fondly of the Merdeka soccer tournament, which he used to be involved in, but is sad that the tournament has lost its shine.

"You must try the shark's fin soup in this restaurant, they don't use monosodium glutamate," said the health-conscious sifu, who reminded me of the late actor Kuan Tak Heng, who played the legendary kungfu master Wong Fei Hoong in the movie classics.

I am often told that shark's fin soup is tasteless without the MSG. Well, leave it to the best chefs in Hong Kong and they can prove the critics of this culinary delight wrong.

In Hong Kong, as in many Asian countries, food is a serious subject. It can even become emotional if the subject turns to shark's fin soup, particularly among traditionalist Chinese food lovers.

Last week, the subject was a major item in Hong Kong newspapers in yet another spat between conservationists and shark's fin traders and food lovers.

The former said Hong Kong's efforts to control the shipment of shark's fins had fallen short, especially the white shark, great white shark and basking shark, all of which are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.

The three species face extinction from what conservationists estimate is a 100 million sharks a year cull to meet the demand for shark's fin soup, with local conservationist Brian Darvell pushing for laws to restrict the trade.

The debate has taken an interesting twist because Chiu Ching Cheung, the chairman of the Shark's Fin Trade Merchants Association, has dismissed the allegation. "Basking sharks, whale sharks and great white sharks … their fins are too big and, therefore, not very popular in the market. Their fins are also not very tasty," he said, adding that the conservationists did not seem to know this.

He also dismissed the argument that fishermen only slash the fins of the sharks before they were dumped overboard, saying every part of the shark was used in typical Chinese fashion.

Chiu is upset that environmental groups were allegedly presenting misleading information to make traders look bad, saying extinction was not determined by environmentalists but experts with real figures.

But in a highly competitive city, where consumerism is king, the campaign by the conservationists is an uphill battle. The older Chinese in Hong Kong even see the campaign as interference from white busybodies.

They snubbed the decision of Hong Kong Disneyland not to serve shark's fin soup at its restaurants following pressure from the conservationists even as its competitor Sea World reportedly allowed the dish to be served at its place.

The theme parks have waged a price war for wedding packages, with Sea World offering couples the opportunity to take pictures with dolphins. The more adventurous can even take underwater photos with the sharks but the punch line is they can swim with the sharks and eat the shark's fins too, not necessarily the ones there.

In a symbolic move, Hong Kong University has banned shark's fin dishes on its campus and said it would not reimburse staff for the delicacy consumed at official banquets.

A green group, meanwhile, has asked telecommunications company PCCW to withdraw shark's fin from its promotional gifts following a complaint against the city's largest fixed-line telephone service provider.

PCCW is offering gift packs, including shark's fin and fried mushrooms, to customers who sign up for its fixed-line services for 12 months. A company spokesman has declined to say whether it plans to withdraw the package, nor would it say if it would ban it at company business banquets.

Even the Hong Kong government has been dragged into the debate with the World Wide Fund for Nature, Hong Kong, lambasting the government for its failure to ban shark's fin as the city is the leading consumer in the world of this product.

Aware of the sensitivity, a coral reef specialist Paul Hodgson said he did not want the people of Hong Kong to stop eating shark's fin and that his activism did not come from a distaste for Chinese culinary tradition.

"I will fight for a person's right to eat shark's fin – as long as it's sustainable," he said.

As I prepared to leave Hong Kong for home, a friend telephoned to invite me for a breakfast of dim sum, saying I should try the yee chee siew mai, or shark's fin dumpling. Looks like it's going to be tough for the conservationists.