Culture

'Snake masters' are becoming extinct in Hong Kong

Aug 24, 2018

For a bowl of snake soup, there’s perhaps no better place to seek it out than Hong Kong. For the best bowls? You’ll have to find a store with the words “snake king” (蛇王) in its name, and those are becoming harder and harder to find nowadays.

These “snake king” stores have specialized in snake-related food products—some for decades—and snake soup is always on the menu. Some even keep live snakes in their store.

They’re wrangled and defanged by snake masters, and kept hidden in wooden drawers labelled “venomous snake,” in red.

Many others that don’t keep snakes buy the meat from those that do. Water snakes, pythons, Chinese cobras and the banded krait are among the species used.

Most agree that it tastes like chicken.

To make the soup, the snakes are first skinned, then strips of meat are separated from the bones and organs. The meat is boiled overnight with a combination of ingredients that varies with each recipe: chicken, ham, mushrooms, fish maw, pork bones, mandarin peel, ginger, or abalone. Then, using starch, it’s turned into geng (羹): a thick, clear soup. Fried wonton skins or lemongrass can be added as a topping.

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Most agree that it tastes like chicken.

In traditional Chinese medicine, snake soup, as well as other snake byproducts such as bile or snake wine, are treated as panaceas—a broad health booster claimed to be able to cure almost everything from a sore throat to arthritis.

In Chinese medicine, snake soup is also classified as a warming yang (陽) food, to be eaten during cold weather. The Compendium of Materia Medica, an influential Chinese herbology book from 1578, assures that ''snake meat is very warming, a wild pig can survive the coldest winter if he eats three snakes.''

A dying trade

Despite the height of its popularity within this generation, only 20 snake vendors are in operation today in Hong Kong.

The 1980s witnessed the height of the snake soup business, when over a hundred shops in Hong Kong sold and specialized in snakes.

The delicacy was served at luxurious banquets and corporate dinners, as a status symbol that only the wealthy could afford back then. One bowl cost two days’ pay for the average Hong Kong citizen.

She Wong Lam, the city’s first and oldest snake vendor, had three separate branches, ten apprentices, handled 60 percent of Hong Kong’s orders, and was often so busy that staff would sleepover in the store. 

And yet, after over a hundred years of serving snake soup, She Wong Lam closed to the public this past July.

The price and popularity of snake soup has fallen dramatically over the past century. It’s now priced at around $45 HKD ($5.75 USD), and enjoyed mainly by traditional generations.

“One older gentleman claimed to eat a bowl of snake soup every day during winter…However, he wasn’t sure whether anyone in his family would be able to continue the habit, considering that many snake shops have closed in recent years,” Mak Tai-kung recalled about a customer at She Wong Lam.

Alongside incredibly high rent and low wages, there’s little to keep stores afloat.

No one wants to do this kind of work anymore.

“There are no more teenagers wanting to be apprentices,” notes Ho Cheuk-hing, who began as an apprentice himself under Mak Tai-kong. The shop hadn’t seen a new apprentice in over 30 years.

“No one wants to do this kind of work anymore.”

With few to continue the trade, snake masters are quickly aging out of the industry.

“This unique traditional product is not entirely useless in other ways,” says Mak. “It would be a shame to let it disappear.”