By her account, Chau Ka-ling was a poor student. She had little interest in school and books.
Instead, she preferred to spend her days at her father’s shop in Hong Kong, watching him slaughter and cook snakes to make snake soup, a local delicacy.
Years later, when Chau took over his business, Shia Wong Hip, she became one of only a handful of women in Hong Kong to run a snake soup shop. To this day, she remains the city’s only certified female snake catcher.
“Because my dad couldn’t see a woman doing this job, I’ve been working ever since to be the brightest, the best, the master,” she says with pride.
In Hong Kong, snake soup is popular during the winter months. Though it frequently appears on television as an exotic curiosity—William Shatner, Henry Winkler, George Foreman, and Terry Bradshaw tried Chau’s soup on the travel show Better Late Than Never—the dish itself is very simple.
Most first-time eaters say it tastes like chicken, if only because the broth is made by simmering snake, chicken, and pork bones overnight. Chopped snake meat, stewed for about 40 minutes until the fibers soften, are served in the soup along with lemongrass and fried wonton skin.
Snake meat has been consumed in China since at least the 16th century.
Snake meat has been consumed in China since at least the 16th century. The Compendium of Materia Medica, an influential herbology book from 1578, lists snake meat as an ingredient, though present-day consumption is largely limited to southern China.
During its heyday in the 1980s, snake soup was promoted as a health food. Hundreds of shops in Hong Kong would prepare snakes ahead of the winter months for eager customers.
But today, there are fewer than 20 shops left in Hong Kong specializing in snake soup. Chau attributes the decline to a lack of young blood entering the industry. She started in the 1970s and says she is probably among the youngest still making snake soup in Hong Kong.
A decline in the wild snake population has also made business tough. Chau is reluctant to use farmed snakes, believing snakes caught in the wild are more flavorful. She imports most of her snakes from Australia and Southeast Asia, but human development and overhunting have affected many of the breeding grounds.
For now, Chau is hanging on as long as she can. On the side, she lends her expertise to the Hong Kong government, catching wild snakes that escape to residential areas.
Chau considers herself lucky to have made it this far. She recalls when she first started, her mother expected her to last three months.
“And I thought, ‘Don’t underestimate me. I will definitely do this perfectly all the way.’ And I’ve done this until now.”