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EXTRACT: Poacher. Confessions from the Abalone Underworld (2018)

Poacher. Confessions from the Abalone Underworld by Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader (Kwela, September 2018) is an unprecedented inside view of South Africa’s illicit abalone trade, a lawless underwater treasure hunt for a marine snail prized as a delicacy in China. In the last 25 years poaching syndicates have harvested and smuggled more than 40,000 tons of the coveted shellfish, avoiding all attempts by authorities to shut the trade down.

Shuhood Abader, a poacher of considerable repute, began writing his life story in prison, revealing in rich detail some of the backstory to South Africa’s abalone poaching crisis. Here he collaborates with Cape Town journalist Kimon de Greef who has been writing about abalone poaching for years. Together they peel back the layers on one of the world’s strangest illegal commodity trades, showing how the pursuit of status in China plugged into South Africa’s criminal underworld and drove a rush for abalone that continues to this day.

Kimon de Greef will be appearing at the Africa-China Journalists Forum and Photo Exhibition at Wits on November 1 2018, and copies of Poacher will be available for purchase at the event.

Below follows an extract (Chapter 8) from Poacher. Be sure to catch Kimon at the Forum. 

Hong Kong in autumn is a hot, steaming city, the sky growing heavy before it bursts with monsoon rain. Stepping out from cooled buildings means confronting a wall of humidity. Within a minute clothes soak and adhere to the skin. Apartments and office blocks rise in bar graphs of increasing density, their windows shut against the heat. Air-conditioning units jut from every room, dripping moisture onto the street.

In such a climate drinking beer is appealing, and even the 7-Elevens sell ice-cold quarts. With its British colonial history and rise as a business hub, Hong Kong has many beer brands, but when I visited in 2017 none was marketed as vigorously as Blue Girl, a pale lager originally brewed in Germany.

For its summer promotion the company was running a draw that was advertised across town. Featured in the adverts was a young woman with furry ears and a tail. She wore a sports bra and held a beer bottle. There was something unsettling about the ears. On long subway trips, wedged between silent commuters, I gazed blankly at posters of her. It was days before I saw that abalone was listed as a prize.

By then I had already seen so much abalone that the images remained when I shut my eyes at night, jet-lagged and unable to sleep: wet, fleshy nuggets, the feet plump and circular like egg yolks, the frills neatly trimmed.

Hotel chains advertised abalone specials on street trams and buses. There were photos of plated abalone dishes outside the restaurants: cooked in brown sauce, with stir-fried greens. At the dried seafood stores abalone was artfully arrayed in window displays, with glass containers sorted by variety, size and price. The ubiquity of the stuff was disorientating after so many years studying abalone as a smuggled commodity.

Here it was a reward in Hong Kong’s biggest beer promotion. The origin of the abalone, a Chinese colleague told me, was specified as South African. It was in frozen form, while the poached product is dried, which is easier to export illegally. Still, its inclusion among the prizes—a free trip to Japan, hampers of beer, cash—demonstrated the prestige H. midae commands.

Hong Kong imports abalone from Japan, Australia, South Africa, Mexico, the United States, China and the Middle East. Most of these countries have problems with abalone poaching, but none on the scale of South Africa. The price of abalone varies greatly according to country of origin, with Japanese varieties the most expensive. South African abalone is typically next.

A 2018 report by TRAFFIC, a non-profit that monitors illegal wildlife trades, explains why South African abalone is so sought- after: it is perceived to offer the best compromise between quality and price. Today it dominates the market for dried abalone, most of it illegally sourced.

Between 2012 and 2015, a third of Hong Kong’s dried abalone imports came from South Africa. To avoid detection at borders, another third was ‘laundered’ via African countries with no wild abalone stocks—Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia— in a pattern that has increased this past decade. This means that nearly 65 per cent of all the dried abalone entering Hong Kong was South African in origin. Of this, an estimated 65 per cent stemmed from the black market, making it the world’s biggest conduit of dried abalone to China.

On its journey eastwards, poached abalone from South Africa flips into a legal product, shifting from a crime story to a food story. I was in Hong Kong, the epicentre of China’s abalone industry, to try join the two halves together.

I started off in Sheung Wan, the historic dried seafood district.

When China’s emperor ceded control of Hong Kong to Britain in 1842, putting an end to the Opium Wars, Sheung Wan lay on the waterfront, establishing as a hub for traders. Within two decades, the shoreline had been pushed back by a land reclamation scheme, but Sheung Wan retained its commercial character.

Traditionally, many of the stores sold salted fish caught by local fishermen, adding a wider variety of dried seafood products—clams, mussels, conches—as regional supply net- works expanded. When Hong Kong’s economy boomed in the 1970s and 1980s, switching its base from manufacturing to finance, more valuable items like abalone and shark fin became profitable. Sheung Wan became the nexus of the luxury seafood trade, a position it has maintained for more than 40 years.

Along Sheung Wan’s Des Voeux Road West, also known as Dried Seafood Street, hundreds of specialist stores spill out onto the curb. Plastic tubs on the pavement hold cheaper items, with premium goods stored more safely inside.

A big shop has dozens of abalone varieties, with dozens more types of sea cucumber. Shark fins are displayed for prestige. Fish maw—opaque gourds dried from the swim bladders of certain fish—complete the traditional quartet of ‘marine treasures’.

Many of the shops also sell ginseng, bird’s nests, deer antlers and dried fungi: medicinal goods retailing for great sums at the intersection of status and health. It feels like an ancient, pre- colonial Hong Kong, out of step with the glitz and neon of the downtown high-rises, but could not exist without the wealth and global reach of the modern city. The dried seafood market exists in the present, an urban reinvention of China’s imperial past.

I walked past three or four stores before stepping inside one to look at the jars. A small old man in spectacles sat at the back beside a Buddhist shrine with burning incense. A younger woman stood behind the counter, speaking to a customer in Cantonese; by the entrance a sweating assistant was stacking boxes, wearing a soiled white vest.

The abalone was graded by size, with a hand-written label—a Roman numeral and several words in Chinese script—affixed to every jar. The pieces ranged from thumb- to palm-sized, coloured reddish to yellow-brown. Each had the same basic shape: round foot, flat back, scrubby beard. The jars with the highest prices contained the Japanese abalone, symmetrical and golden, with straight vertical grooves down the middle from drying on strings.

‘Do you have any abalone from South Africa?’ I asked the woman. Nobody had acknowledged my presence yet. She shook her head and flapped her hands as if shooing away a cat.

‘From South Africa?’ I tried again, pointing at the jars.

‘No, no, no,’ she said.

The same thing happened in the next shop. When I tried to take a picture of the jars, someone shouted from across the room,

‘No photo,’ stepping forward and raising his palms.

In the window there were gift packs of abalone in velvet cases and shark fins bound with ribbons. Outside, balanced on car roofs or on the curb, wicker trays of abalone and sea cucumber lay drying in the sun. The humidity in summer can ruin entire batches of product, I was told later, and so in breaks between downpours merchants open their jars to the city fumes.

A single tray of South African abalone is worth more than R60 000. An assistant sat at each doorway, keeping watch over the stock. Inside many of the shops cats dozed or sniffed boxes of seafood. It was easier to get permission to photograph the cats.

Finally I walked into a shop with a large sign hung over the street and a giant golden plastic abalone above the counter. An ingratiating, anxious man in his twenties named Jeffrey greeted me in English. I told him I wanted to buy some South African abalone, and he opened a fridge and took out some jars. The business had been in his family for four generations, he said. His father waved from behind a computer. An employee brought me jasmine tea. I wanted to write a food story about abalone, I told Jeffrey, picking two pieces for R2 000. When he asked what I would do with them, I said I would cook them with a friend.

Jeffrey said he was certain it would be possible for me to interview his father and grandfather. He handed me his business card, shaped elaborately like an abalone shell, and circled his number in pen.

I sent him a WhatsApp two days later.

‘I am afraid to tell you that I could not make the interview,’ he wrote back.

That night I drank beer with Jenny—we avoided Blue Girl, finding it flavourless—and lamented wasting money on abalone that had not even been poached.23 The pieces I had bought had been dried on a string, without preservatives or chemicals, in the traditional Japanese ‘kippin’ style. They had neatly trimmed beards and ridged, ovate sides: a shape modelled either on gold ingots or female genitalia, depending who you ask.

Kippin abalone is regarded for its complex flavours and soft yet chewy texture: the mouth-feel that in Cantonese cuisine is as critical a feature as taste. Some South African abalone farms have begun using the kippin method to dry their product, flying out experts to train their staff and even shipping small volumes to Japan for processing.

These levels of care and finesse are unattainable in the illegal industry, where abalone is dried as quickly as possible in covert plants, typically with dehydrating chemicals like sodium sulphate.

I had bought Jeffrey’s abalone hoping to find out how his family’s business operated: who their suppliers were, and how poached H. midae flowed onto the market. Were imports of South African abalone controlled by mafia groups? These were questions I would not answer in Hong Kong.

*

Between 2000 and 2016, says TRAFFIC, an estimated 36 000 tonnes of abalone were poached in South Africa, equivalent to some 96 million individual shellfish. This means that six million abalone, on average, have been harvested illegally every year— or 11 abalone every minute, day and night.

I found some of this poached abalone soon afterwards, in a large store in Sheung Wan. I had a photograph on my phone of the correct Chinese label ( ) and showed it to an assistant, who led me to a counter piled with plastic sacks.

The South African product was sorted into three sizes. The assistant let me handle the pieces. Their bristles were stiff and prickly, their contours squashed in uneven lumps. Their small faces were distorted and mummified, flattened sideways in the drying process. I took some photographs and saw three sets of eyebrows lift behind a counter further back. Everybody in the shop was watching me, I realised, suddenly paranoid. No one returned my wave on the way out.

I stepped onto the street and sought to vanish in the crowd. Trams rattled and trucks hooted in the traffic. I turned into a narrow alley, emerged on another road of seafood shops, crossed at a light, and doubled back. No mobsters accosted me. I found Jenny where she had been browsing antiques and we caught a bus across town.

That night, I WhatsApped a picture of the abalone to Shuhood.

‘How much does it sell per kg there?’ he replied. ‘I really wanna know’

‘Over R2 000 per kilo.’

‘Lol if you work it out per wet kilo then how much does it sell for?’

‘Up to ten times that price. I’m not sure exactly how much wet abalone mass shrinks when dried.’

‘Ja, just wanted to know how/where do I fit in the food chain … In terms of financial gain where do we as the divers fit in, in the industry.’

‘Where do you reckon?’

‘Close to the bottom.’

*

The Chinese term for abalone is bao, which with only minor changes in pronunciation can also refer to packages, bread or steamed buns. This ambiguity creates opportunities for wordplay that extend into the idiomatic. ‘If you say you’re eating abalone,’ Daniel Cheung, a culinary tour guide, told me, ‘you could mean exactly that. Or you could be making a crass yonic joke— basically, eating pussy.’

In other circumstances, when feeling flush, one might say something that best translates as: ‘Let’s go eat abalone with steak knives,’ even for plans that do not involve any abalone. An English equivalent, Cheung suggested, might be ‘painting the town red’.

I met Cheung through the tour company he works for, Little Adventures in Hong Kong, after hitting more dead-ends in Sheung Wan. He grew up in a family that ate abalone frequently, studied food anthropology in London, trained as a Cordon Bleu chef and worked in a series of high-end restaurants before returning to Hong Kong.

First, he took me to Kin’s Kitchen, a Michelin-starred Canto- nese restaurant in the downtown district of Wan Chai, to meet chef Lau Chun, son of owner Kin-wai. (Cheung also does PR for several restaurants, including Kin’s Kitchen.) We rode the lift to the fifth floor of a tall building, leaving behind the crush of the street. On a table in the lobby was a minimalist display of fungal specimens and the menu, typed in English and Cantonese. Lunch service had ended and the dining room was empty of customers. Servers in white uniform were resetting the tables. Suspended from the ceiling, goldfish swam in glass lights.

Lau Chun was in his forties, with full cheeks and a small mouth. He had been preparing abalone, he said, for most of his adult life.

‘You get three kinds,’ he explained. ‘Fresh, mainly from China and South Africa; canned, mainly from Mexico, Australia and South Africa; and dried, mainly from Japan, South Africa and the Middle East. Dried is most prestigious. It is what you’d serve at a banquet. People can pay US $100 a piece.’

‘The best dried abalone is Japanese,’ he went on. ‘It has a texture we call “runny egg yolk”, where the middle remains molten. Japanese abalone will be on the front page of the menu; South African abalone will be on the second. I can put it like this: if Japanese abalone is a Mercedes, South African is a Honda— reliable, good value.’

To prepare dried abalone, Lau soaks it in water for twelve to 24 hours before blanching it in boiling water with chopped ginger and spring onion. Separately he cooks an intense broth of chicken, pork ribs, ham and oyster sauce, then braises the abalone for eight hours or more. It is not a food for experimenting with.

‘There’s one direction. It’s a pricy, sacred ingredient,’ Cheung said.

Lau keeps a small supply of dried bao in his kitchen, usually South African. Customers must order a few days in advance. He sources his product from traders he trusts, taking care to select good pieces. ‘They should be light brown, luminous or radiant, plump,’ he said. ‘Abalone of low quality has a dull colour and uneven shape.’

Bigger, in general, is better, but for practicality he prefers slightly smaller sizes, which are less expensive and easier to sell.

In Hong Kong, abalone is measured in ‘heads’: the number of pieces that make up 600 grams, a traditional Chinese unit known as a catty. The smaller the number of heads, the bigger the piece of abalone, and bigger abalone costs more per unit weight. TRAFFIC has found that the biggest South African abalone costs, on average, about R10 000 per kilogram, more than double the price of smaller sizes.

Buying expensive abalone in a restaurant requires two levels of trust: that the chef will not cheat you, and that he has not been cheated by his suppliers. Few people can tell apart different varieties, leaving the system vulnerable to fraud. This is the main reason, said Cheun, that traditional merchants still dominate the market, protected from new rivals by long-standing reputation.

‘I buy dried seafood from the same people my mother did, and her mother before her,’ he told me. ‘One of the sons serves me now. That’s how it works. It runs in the family.’

Certain chefs, too, become known for preparing abalone. Max Levy, an American chef, runs a hip restaurant at the edge of Sheung Wan. There is ‘an almost military hierarchy’ of chefs trusted to cook the most prestigious dried seafoods, he says.

‘High-end consumers might have opinions about abalone but significantly fewer than half, I’d say, understand the finer details of what they’re eating. It’s a bit like people buying luxury cars. And so you have this rank of trusted chefs to mediate the experience.’

At the very top, undisputedly, is Yeung Koon-yat, 86, known as the Abalone King. He grew up poor in China and moved to Hong Kong in 1949, finding a job as a dishwasher and working his way up through successive kitchens. In 1974, he opened his own restaurant, Forum, where abalone became his signature dish. ‘It was the food of kings, of businessmen or intellectuals,’ he told the South China Morning Post in 2014.

In the early 1980s, when he began preparing it, abalone was not yet widely served in Hong Kong restaurants, still considered beyond the means of most diners. But within a decade, Yeung’s fame—and that of the mollusc—had soared.

Mainland China had just opened up its economy. Cantonese cuisine, with its emphasis on exotic ingredients, had become aspirational for the new middle class. Riding this trend, Yeung would cook abalone for China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, become a member of the Club des Chefs des Chefs d’Etat (the world’s most exclusive culinary association) and sell, by his reckoning, more than 700 000 pieces of abalone.

The market for abalone had exploded. For dried product, South Africa would emerge as the biggest single source.

*

I returned to the seafood district one afternoon. Cargo trucks crowded the parking bays and blocked the alleys, attended by hundreds of sweating porters. From some trucks the men unloaded giant sacks and boxes fastened with plastic straps, piling them on flat trolleys and disappearing into shops and storerooms. Other trucks were being loaded with hydraulic lifts. The hard wheels of the trolleys rattled on the tarmac. Men shouted to co-ordinate their deliveries up and down the street.

It seemed like all the shops were swapping products with each other. From one came vacuum-packed mushrooms like scraps of leather as a man piled fish maw on the pavement. Every few minutes, a driver swung into his truck, revved the diesel engine and pulled away.

I was glimpsing the convoluted means by which dried goods circulate in Hong Kong. The traders controlling the industry often act simultaneously as importers, wholesalers and retailers. A company that imports and distributes abalone from South Africa might source Japanese abalone from another shop. It is a system impenetrable to outsiders, but TRAFFIC, working with Chinese researchers, decoded it in a report.

The supply chain from South Africa was ‘structured like an hourglass,’ the authors wrote. ‘Numerous fishers and processing companies are located at source, including poaching groups and illegal processing operations, while at the consumer end, an extensive industry of abalone wholesalers and retailers distributes supplies to restaurants, hotels and homes. The trade narrows at the centre.’

In Sheung Wan most of the shops have names typed in Chinese, their signs luxuriant red or gold. A few have accom- panying translations: Prosperity Steamship Co. Ltd; Hop Shing Sea Products Grocery; Yee Hing Shark’s Fin. On a narrow side street off Des Voeux Road West was a small store with glass doors. Its name, in capital letters, was PERLEMOEN.

Jenny had come across it and took a photograph to show me. Together we went and stood on the opposite curb. I had been rebuffed from more than a dozen stores by now and no longer had the appetite for approaching sellers. A main reason for their unfriendliness, I learned later, was the perceived association of white people with shark-fin trade protests, active in Hong Kong since the 1990s.

A few days later, with Cheung, the guide, I returned to Perlemoen and went inside. Giant South African abalone were displayed at the entrance, lumpy and dark brown. ‘That’s as big as I’ve ever seen,’ Cheung said.

An elderly manager told Cheung that when the owner began dealing with abalone, ‘many decades ago,’ he had travelled to South Africa to meet exporters. ‘Due to the profound nature of the relationship that developed,’ he went on, ‘and with most of our stock coming from South Africa, he chose to name the shop Perlemoen.’ The biggest pieces in the shop measured 2,5 heads and were advertised for 96 000 Hong Kong dollars per catty—a quarter million rand per kilogram. A restaurant could mark that up ‘four to five times,’ Cheung said, though abalone that big was unlikely to sell. ‘Every shop needs a few blockbuster, showcase pieces,’ he explained, ‘just for face.’

*

‘Face’ in China is a complex system of honour and respect that binds together relationships. By making an error in public, one may ‘lose face,’ like in the West—or, recovering in time, ‘save’ it. By honouring another person, one may also ‘give’ face, strengthening one’s connection with that person, while ‘gaining’ face for the gesture.

The reciprocal culture of gifting and paying tribute that this fosters is critical for understanding the trade in abalone and other status items. By ordering abalone at a restaurant, one demonstrates both high regard for their dining partners and an ability to afford expensive meals—somewhat like buying expensive wine in the West, but rooted in a deeper tradition of relating that dates to the Confucian era.

The concept of ‘face’ is central to cultivating guanxi—a term that encompasses both personal relationships and wider networks of influence. Without guanxi, it is difficult to make headway in business or politics. Into this ancient code abalone from South Africa slipped: an instrument for fostering social rank and, more broadly, human connection.

The great number of varieties, sizes and forms of abalone means that for most people there are products to which they can realistically aspire. On Chinese New Year, the most auspicious date for dining lavishly, banquet halls fill up and businessmen order kippin abalone dishes for their guests.

‘Whereas a working- class man might open a can of abalone at home,’ said Cheung.

‘It’s a sign of progress, no matter what you earn.’

Hong Kong’s annual Food Expo was being held that week at the Convention Centre, a monolith of glass and steel on the waterfront, facing the channel that splits off Hong Kong Island from the mainland. Inside there were thousands of people queuing for tickets and snaking up and down the escalators. One entire hall showcased kitchen gadgets; another was just for baked goods. We paid extra to get into the Gourmet Zone, where the culinary pursuit of status was on grand display.

There were stalls selling cognac, truffles, Japanese beef, Iberian ham. In the ‘Asian’ section, amid giant crabs and ginseng gift packs, traders were selling abalone: fresh, dried, canned.

One stall was giving away abalone samples and a crowd had gathered. A salesman with a microphone was gushing about H. midae. ‘It’s fresh, large, clean!’ His product came from a farm in the Overberg, I saw on the label. His assistants were spiking chopped pieces with toothpicks and handing them out. People stood around happily chewing the abalone.

‘It’s a gimmick,’ said Cheung, the gourmand.

*

In one of the old shops in Sheung Wan—worn wooden counters, an ornate shrine at the back—a wrinkled trader took down a jar from the shelf. ‘It is great value for foodies,’ he said to Cheung. The nuggets were palm-sized, priced at R6 500 per kilogram. ‘But I only have two jars left,’ he went on. ‘Supply from South Africa has dropped. Environmental degradation.’

Awareness of supply-chain sustainability does not deeply penetrate Hong Kong’s dried seafood industry. After decades of campaigning against the shark-fin trade, Hong Kong-based British activist Alex Hofford told me, major airlines, hotels and restaurants have begun removing shark fin from their menus, but this does not extend to other threatened species.

‘Shark fin is more associated with the older generation,’ said Crystal Chow, a local environmental journalist who has written about abalone poaching. ‘When couples get married, they often have fights with their parents now. “You can’t have a wedding without serving shark fin. We’ll lose face,” the parents say. But people no longer want to be associated with shark fin now that they understand how damaging the trade is. So to make up for it, their parents will add more abalone to the menu.’

Through covert surveys, where a Chinese researcher posed as an interested buyer, TRAFFIC found that 80 per cent of abalone traders were aware of illegal activities in the sector. Many knew that overfishing had depleted stocks in South Africa. Several spoke about Triad groups that co-ordinated the poaching and illegal export of abalone.

‘One trader explained that Chinese criminal syndicates effectively manage the trade between South African poachers and importers in Hong Kong, and control the flow and prices,’ the authors wrote. ‘He noted that it would be difficult for Hong Kong traders to bypass these intermediaries.’
One morning, I visited a region of the city frequented by Mainland Chinese tourists. Several shops were selling dried H. midae in open vats. It was of terrible quality, inconsistently shaped and coloured, with scraps of detritus from hurried processing—dried feeding tubes, bits of viscera—clinging to the meat.

At the counter I asked a salesman, a young man with spiked hair, where he sourced his abalone, saying I was from South Africa and had connections for better supply.

‘We have people in South Africa already,’ he said. ‘Get out of here. Go. Go! Stop wasting my time.’

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