Selling live fish tradition in Chinese community

Larry Bacon
The Register-Guard, Eugene Oregon,

May 5, 2001

Mostly the Chinese community in places such as San Francisco's Chinatown, where customers in restaurants and fish markets can pick from fish caught off the nearby Pacific reefs, a variety of farm-raised fish, and live shellfish.

Fish have been marketed that way in Hong Kong and other Chinese cities for decades.

Buying live fish at such places isn't cheap. Kevin Lee, an Oakland-based live fish wholesaler whose company buys fish in Southern Oregon, says retail customers usually pay $10 or more a pound for live fish such as those caught off the Oregon Coast.

"They cook it how you want," Lee said. "Steam, deep fry, pan fry. But they charge you for that."

The Chinese customers are willing to pay extra for guaranteed freshness, Lee said. The aerated tanks in the restaurants and markets allow fish to be kept alive for up to two weeks.

"The dead ones you can only keep two or three days, and they get worse and worse," he said.

Some fish are small enough to feed just one person. Others may feed a whole family. And often the family dines on fish from the live tanks for special occasions such as spring festival, said Jean Wu, who heads the Department of East Asian Languages at the University of Oregon.

For such occasions, the fish are served whole rather cut up, Wu said, and pains are taken to make them attractive - perhaps topping them with a colorful sauce and putting cherries over the eyes.

In the Chinese culture, she said, dining on whole fish is equated with a wholeness and completeness for the family. "It also serves as a symbol for prosperity and bountifulness," she said.