No one could accuse the Chinese of being squeamish about the things they eat monkeys' brains, owls' eyes, bears' paws and deep fried scorpions are all items on the menu. But most dishes revered as national favourites sound as harmless as boiled rice when compared to the latest pint de jour allegedly gaining favour in Shenzhen human foetus.
Rumours that dead embryos were being used as dietary supplements started to spread early last year with reports that some doctors in Shenzhen hospitals were eating dead foetuses after carrying out abortions. The doctors allegedly defended their actions by saying the embryos were good for their skin and general health.
A trend was set and soon reports circulated that doctors in the city were promoting foetuses as a human tonic. Hospital cleaning women were seen fighting each other to take the treasured human remains home. Last month, reporters from EastWeek a sister publication of Eastern Express went to Shenzhen to see if the rumours could be substantiated. On March 7, a reporter entered the state-run Shenzhen Health Centre for Women and Children feigning illness and asked a female doctor for a foetus. The doctor said the department was out of stock but to come again.
The next day the reporter returned at lunch time. The doctor eventually emerged from the operating theatre holding a fist size glass bottle stuffed with thumbsized foetuses.
She said: 'There are 10 foetuses here, all aborted this morning. You can take them. We are a state hospital and don't charge anything.
'Normally, we doctors take them home to eat all free. Since you don't look well, you can take them.'
Not every state hospital is as generous with its dead embryos as the Health Centre for Women and Children. At the Shenzhen People's Hospital, for example, the reporter was in for a surprise.
When a Ms. Yang, the head nurse, was asked for foetuses, she looked anxious and asked other staff to leave. After closing the door, she asked the undercover buyer in a low voice: 'Where did you (get to) know that we sell foetuses?'
The reporter answered: 'A doctor friend in Hong Kong told me.'
'Who? What is his/her name?'
The reporter was not prepared for this line of questioning and could not come up with a name. Yang told him that foetuses were only for sale within the hospital, and were not for public purchase. She added that some staff would, however, sell the foetuses on to Hong Kong buyers.
The reporter learned that the going rate for a foetus was $10 but when the merchandise was in short supply, the price could go up to $20. But these prices are pin money compared to those set by private clinics, which are said to make a fortune selling foetuses. One chap on Bong Men Lao Street charges $300 for one foetus. The person in charge of the clinic is a man in his 60's. When he saw the ailing reporter, he offered to take an order for foetuses that had reached full-term and which, it is claimed, contain the best healing properties. When a female doctor named Yang no relation of Sin Hua clinic was asked whether foetuses were edible, she said emphatically: 'Of course they are. They are even better than placentas.
'They can make your skin smoother, your body stronger and are good for kidneys. When I was in an army hospital in Jiangti province, I often brought foetuses home. They were pink, like little mice, with hands and feet. Normally, I buy some pork to make soup (with the foetuses added). I know they are human beings, and (eating them) feels disgusting. But at that time, it was already very popular.'
A Mr. Cheng from Hong Kong claims he has been eating foetus soup for more than six months. To begin, the man, in his 40's, would make the trip to Shenzhen frequently for business and was introduced to foetuses by friends. He says he met a number of professors and doctors in government hospitals who helped him buy the foetuses. 'At first, I felt uncomfortable, but doctors said the substances in foetuses could help cure my asthma. I started taking them and gradually, the asthma disappeared,' Cheng said.
Now, Cheng only eats foetuses occasionally to top up his treatment, but there was a time when he made regular cross border trips with the gruesome merchandise. 'Everytime [I made the trip], I carried a Thermos flask to Shenzhen and brought the foetuses back to Hong Kong to make soup. If they gave me 20 or 30 at a time, I put them in the refrigerator. I didn't have the soup every day it depended on the supply.
'Usually, I washed the foetuses clean, and added ginger, orange peel and pork to make soup. After taking it for a while, I felt a lot better and my asthma disappeared. I used to take placenta, but it was not so helpful.' When asked if he was concerned about the foetuses containing diseases, Cheng was dismissive. 'I bought them from government hospitals. They would check the pregnant women before doing the operations and only sell them to me if there was no problem. Also, I always boil them over high heat which kills any bacteria.' Although Cheng has overcome any squeamishness over eating foetus soup, he says he draw the line at consuming whole dead embryos. He also refrains from telling people of his grisly dietary habits.
Zou Qin, 32, a woman from Hubei with the fine skin of a someone several years younger, attributes her well preserved looks to a diet of foetuses. As a doctor at the Lun Hu Clinic, Zou has carried out abortions on several hundred patients. She believes foetuses are highly nutritious and claims to have eaten more than 100 in the past six months. She pulls out a foetus specimen before a reporter and explains the selection criteria. 'People normally prefer (foetuses of) young women, and even better, the first baby and a male.' She adds: 'They are wasted if we don't eat them. The women who receive abortions here don't want the foetuses. Also, the foetuses are already dead [when we eat them]. We don't carry out abortions just to eat the foetuses.
'Before, my sister's children were very weak. I heard that foetuses were good for your health and started taking some to my nephews,' Zou says, without remorse. 'I wash them with clear water until they look transparent white and then stew them. Making soup is best.' But she admits there are drawbacks to this dubious delicacy. 'Foetuses are very smelly and not everybody can take the stink,' she said. 'You can also make meat cakes by mixing foetuses with minced meat but you have to add more ginger and chives to get rid of the smell.'
Hong Kong legislator Dr. Tan Siu-tong is surprised that it could be within anyone's capability to overcome the stench of a dead foetus, even if their stomachs are lined with lead. 'When all the placental tissue is dead, the smell is awful and is enough to make you feel sick. It is like having a dead mouse in the house,' he said.
The foetuses allegedly eaten by the Chinese are all provided by China's extensive abortion services. Last year, doctors in the People's Hospital the biggest hospital in Shenzhen carried out more than 7,000 terminations, 509 on Hong Kong women. The Hong Kong Family Planning Association (FPA) estimates that 24 per cent of all abortions on Hong Kong women are performed in the dubious surroundings of a Chinese hospital. A Ms. Li from Hong Kong has had two abortions in Shenzhen but has never heard of people eating foetuses. 'But I didn't want the babies, so after the abortions, I just left them with the hospital,' she says. 'I didn't want to look at them, and I certainly didn't want to keep them. Foetuses of two or three months are just water and blood when they come out. They are so small, how can you eat them?'
Doctors in the territory have responded with disgust and incredulity to stories of people supplementing their diets with foetuses. Many have read articles of foetal cannibalism but none has been able to verify the reports. They are treating the issue with skepticism. Dr. Margaret Kwan, a gynecologist who until two weeks ago held the post of chief executive at the FPA, says: 'This is the strangest thing I have ever heard coming out of China. I just hope it is not true.'
Dr. Warren Lee, president of the Hong Kong Nutrition Association, is aware of the unsavory rumours. 'Eating foetuses is a kind of traditional Chinese medicine and is deeply founded in Chinese folklore. In terms of nutrition, a foetus would be a good source of protein and fats, and there are minerals in bone. But I don't know if eating foetuses is just folklore or more than that,' he says. According to Lee, it is conceivable that foetuses are rich in certain hormones that are beneficial to the adult human body, but should this be the case, the foetal matter would have to be converted into an injectible form for best results, as most hormones including the hormone for diabetes, insulin are broken down in the digestive system before they have a chance to be absorbed by the body.
But Lee suggests that anyone who eats a foetus would be seeking a remedy that is far more elusive than a hormone or mineral. 'Some people may think there is also an unidentified substance or chemical that has healing powers, but there is no evidence that this is true.' Lee urges people to be wary 'There are people out there who just want to make money and they will come up with all sorts of formulas or substances, which, they say will cure diseases.'
As a child, Patrick Yau was fed on human placentas by his mother who worked at a local hospital, but in his current position as a psychologist with the Social Welfare Department he is both repulsed and shocked by the notion of eating foetuses. 'As a Catholic, I object to abortions because I believe the foetus is a human life, and I certainly object to eating a dead baby after it has been aborted,' he says. Yau concedes that in China, where the one child policy has turned abortions into an acceptable remedy to an unfortunate human blunder, people may have adopted a new outlook on life before birth, such that embryos are stripped of their status as human beings.
But Tang fails to understand how anyone anywhere can convince themselves 'that they are just eating an organism when they are actually eating a dead body'. 'It may not be a formed human being, but when they think about it most people would think: 'Ugh! No, I can't eat that.' I don't think civilized people with an education could do that sort of thing.'
Dr. Wong, a Hong Kong doctor who practices Western medicine, thinks only the ignorant would eat human foetuses. He explains that foetuses contain mucoploysaccharide, which is beneficial to the metabolism, but states that it can be found in a lot of other food Chinese doctor Chu Ho-Ting agrees that there is no place for foetuses in medicine, and suggests that it might even be unhealthy if the pregnant woman was infected by disease.
'Most bacteria can be killed under 100 degree heat but some require 400 degrees. Some people believe eating foetuses can strengthen the immunity of the human body against diseases, but this is wrong. Although foetuses contain protein, they are not as nutritious as placenta, which contains different kinds of nutrients. But even placenta has to be taken with other Chinese herbs.'