WARNING: Confronting content
AS FAR as I know, I’m the only Australian journalist to ever go inside the Yulin dog meat festival.
From the moment I board my 30-hour train from Shanghai, until I leave Yulin three days later, I will not encounter a single foreigner.
Last year, the Yulin government made the decision to block journalists and activists from entering the meat markets — a law physically enforced by local villagers.
At first, walking around town, nothing I see resembles the viral footage of hanging carcasses and puppies being bludgeoned to death. Just long, dusty streets selling the usual marketfare — clothes, kitchenware and cheap electronics.
I walk into half a dozen restaurants and inquire — with the help of Google Translate — if they sell dog meat. Each server shakes their head, even though there are pictures of dogs on outdoor menus.
Finally, while dining at a local family restaurant, I change tact and ask the owners where I’m able to find dog meat.
To my surprise, their response is one of both horror and curiosity. “You like to eat dog?” an older waitress says, looking slightly sick. She’s never tried it, and insists she never will.
A young guy around my age, named Liang Xinping, claims there’s no such festival. But he seems amused by my request, and even abruptly films our conversation to send to his friends. He too insists he doesn’t eat dog meat.
After some persistence, I’m finally directed to Dongkou Market, a popular outdoor meat market a few kilometres downtown.
INSIDE THE WORLD’S MOST CONTROVERSIAL FESTIVAL
You smell them before you see them.
The scent is assaulting and pungent, like a butcher shop’s dumpster. The taste of decaying raw meat settles on your tongue every time you breathe in.
Sanitation is non-existent; the inland weather is stinking and humid, there are no refrigerators, and the ground is littered with plastic bags, discarded foodstuffs and insects.
Then there are the dogs.
Their carcasses are hairless and hollow; slaughterers have sliced out their meat and organs from the underside, leaving their outer bodies eerily intact.
Chihuahuas hang from steel hooks by the mouth, while the larger canines lay motionless by the dozen across different tables. Inside out, it’s impossible to tell their breed.
Some stalls showcase dogs’ heads alone — decapitated at the neck — being eaten from within by swarms of flies.
Stepping in off the main road, the glares immediately make it clear no one is pleased by an outsider’s presence.
Staring at foreigners is common across China. If you make eye contact and smile, most people immediately smile back. Some even wave and brightly yell: “Hello!”
The contrast here feels heavy. No one smiles. They look cold and suspicious. On my second lap, a group of young men begin trailing me from a short distance.
Towards the back of the market, there are two large wooden doors. They’re bolted shut, but the sound of high-pitched yelping carries out for several metres over the chopping and chatter. It’s hard to tell whether they signify caging or culling.
I approach a vendor who is roughly handling several carcasses and ask in Mandarin: “Is this dog meat?”
“Shi! Guo!” she fires back, chopping the meat more aggressively. “Yep! Dog!”
Her reaction seems almost defiant — a demonstration of no guilt or responsibility felt for the meat she’s handling so heedlessly. She clearly has nothing to hide, so I pull out my camera.
Bad move. Upon seeing this, the woman begins yelling in Mandarin and brandishing with her free hand. The men following me move in and usher me towards the exit. As I hurry back up the main road, they stand firmly at the entrance.
Their message is clear: the dog meat festival is not for outsiders.
The festival is a ten-day celebration marking the Summer Solstice in Yulin, a small rural town in southern China.
It has taken place annually since 2009, but proved particularly controversial this year, after animal rights groups erroneously claimed it was shut down.
Their celebrations were short-lived; nobody in Yulin was aware of a ban, and by June 21, the slaughter of tens of thousands of dogs and cats was in full swing.
But the global backlash has proved influential. The state-owned Global Timesnewspaper reported the festival was taking place in a “much more subdued manner” this year, with Yulin restaurants even concealing the Chinese character for “dog” on their menus to avoid outside interference.
FROM HOUSEHOLDS TO THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE
A major concern with the festival is where these dogs are coming from.
I put this question to Peter Li, a China policy specialist at Humane Society International, who has been to Yulin five times over the last three years, meeting with slaughterhouse workers and vendors.
He insisted the animals are stolen, rather than raised on farms. He noted the animals’ social behaviour, varying breeds and sizes and collars all indicated they were stolen pets or rural guard dogs.
“The local dog meat vendors of course deny that their dogs are stolen household pets or rural guard dogs,” he told news.com.au. “This is because stealing other people’s dogs is a criminal act.”
The vendors are lying.
“China does not have dog farms. China experimented dog breeding for food. It was a failed exercise since it is not cost-effective to farm dogs for the meat market.
“If the dogs were not stolen, then the vendors should be able to produce documents that show the origins of the dogs. None of the vendors have the documents to support their claim.”
Once stolen, the animals are transported in cages by the truckload, where they will later be slaughtered.
This torture is both physical and mental. Animal rights groups showed me footage of dogs and cats bleeding to death on the ground, as others ran around them.
The Boi Animal Centre is an animal protection organisation based in the Chinese city of Guangyuan.
Its founder, Du Yufeng, has been on the ground in Yulin every year since 2012, protesting and rescuing dogs from slaughter. She’s also witnessed the slaughter face-to-face.
“Most of the dogs are killed by being beaten over the head with a stick,” a centre spokesperson told news.com.au. “The beats to bring unconsciousness to the dogs are followed by a stab in the heart to drain the blood.
“Now, though, the killings are more brutal and range from hanging and beating the dog repeatedly and repetitively to putting the dog in boiling water, alive, for a few minutes but not long enough for death to come, followed by beating or hanging it to kill it.”
Once they’ve been killed and cut open, they’re up for grabs. Depending on the animal, the meat will be sold to eager diners for up to 3000 yuan ($580).
WILL THE FESTIVAL EVER BE SHUT DOWN?
Not any time soon, according to experts.
Mr Li noted that rural China’s problems with unemployment continue driving the dog meat trade, with the government unlikely to step in and outlaw the practice.
He said it could be another 10 or 20 years before the practice dies out altogether.
But there is some good news: the supply and demand of dog meat are on a steady decline — both in Yulin, and more rapidly around the country.
“This year’s market continued the downward spiral in dog meat sales,” Mr Li said. “This means that a smaller number of dogs were slaughtered for the Summer Solstice Day, the so-called ‘dog meat festival’ created by the local dog meat vendors in 2010.”
Contrary to popular belief, dog meat is no longer part of China’s mainstream food culture.
The rise of China’s urban middle-class has largely transformed dogs into faithful companions, as they’re seen in the West.
The country now has the world’s third-largest pet economy, and a Horizon study last year found that 69.5 per cent had never eaten dog, while over half of its 1.37 billion population want sales to be nationally outlawed.
Concurrently there’s a strong generational shift — younger people in China are less likely to eat dog meat, with many actually leading the fight to ban the trade.
Now it’s just a question of when Yulin will catch up.