By Nimshi Perera
On the shores of Houhai Lake in the Dongcheng district of Beijing, an army of street vendors try to lure in customers with a variety of snacks and trinkets. And while the scenic area boasts dining al fresco and karaoke lounges aplenty, there is one stall that attracts visitors in a way that stunning lake views and other tourist options cannot.
“Scorpions!” Ding You, a vendor at He Hua Xiao Chi, yells out to passersby. He holds up a stick laden with three deep-fried scorpions. His display also features sea horses, sea snakes, sea dogs, starfish, grasshoppers, cicadas, and silkworms, all served dried and ranging in price from 10 to 20 RMB ($1.50 to $3) — or the best price that can be haggled.
That exotic assortment isn’t easy to keep in stock and can be expensive, making such items the ultimate in the tourist snacking experience. When asked if Ding would try one of his own critters, he replies laughingly, “only if you pay me.” He receives the most customers in the evenings around 8 p.m., he says, and all are usually tourists.
“It is safe to eat and good for rheumatoid arthritis,” says a Singaporean tourist who stopped by for a scorpion on a recent afternoon. Most customers, however, are oblivious to the medicinal purposes for these insects and sea creatures.
Yet what may be a dare for curious tourists looking to tickle their taste buds evolved from ancient Chinese medicinal practices. Insects, animal parts and various sea creatures have all been used to treat common ailments, a practice dating back to the third century B.C., according to tongrentang.com. The street-vendor variety of medicinal consumption is no longer popular, however, and for those looking to find traditional Chinese medicine cures, they often turn to local traditional Chinese medicine pharmacies like the Tongrentang (TRT).
Founded in 1669, the TRT served as a pharmacy that provided medicinal cures for the imperial court during the Qing dynasty. Today this institution is a popular pharmaceutical company operating in China with locations throughout the world. Like their smaller pharmaceutical counterparts, TRTs still carry the products of traditional Chinese medicine.
However, just a 10-minute walk from Houhai Lake on Di’anmen West Street, the Beijing Tongrentang’s pharmacist, Cai Yujie, says, “TRT does not sell insects or sea creatures of any form.” She adds that the Chinese government believes the sale of such items is not environmentally friendly.
Still, vendors such as Ding You continue to ply their customers with scorpions and other oddities that offer less in the way of cures and more of a thrill-seeking satisfaction.
On a Wednesday night, a large group of Duquesne University students surround the stall, some buying items while others stare in dismay. When asked about the thrill of trying scorpion on a stick, Ben Allen, a third-year business student, replied, “I’m in China, why not try it. It actually doesn’t taste that bad.”