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Emperor’s Dish, or the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Commentary by Gary Stokes, Sea Shepherd Asia Director


Though the origins of shark fin soup vary slightly, in most tales it was created by an emperor in the Sung Dynasty (968 AD) who wanted to display his wealth, power and generosity to his guests. Centuries later, this dish has become the stereotypical, iconic dish that must be served at Chinese weddings or corporate business meetings as a show of “face” and wealth. Shark Fin Soup is part of the “Big Four,” comprised of Abalone, Sea Cucumber, Shark Fin, & Fish Maw, a must-have combination at any important Chinese function.


“Face” in Asia is very important; it’s an intricate part of society and must be the first lesson learnt by anyone trying to understand Asian culture. Doing so will explain why some things are done differently on this side of the world from in the West. It’s where much of the misunderstanding between the cultures of East and West stems from and only an ignorant person would push it aside and not consider it. Not respecting “face” is in the same category of not respecting someone’s religion when in their home. We don’t all have to agree on something, but understanding how each of us think and reach our conclusions goes a long way in solving issues.

With that being said, I think one of the biggest insults to the Chinese people and culture is the modern day myth of shark fin soup being a luxury food item. The con artists are the shark fin traders and restaurateurs who make an absolute “killing” by playing on this old Emperor’s Dish story. Playing on the face angle and misleading people to believe that this “exquisite” luxury item is of great quality, they are able to convince people that if they don’t order it they are clearly poor and not worthy!


I have documented this luxury food ingredient lying out on the sidewalks of the polluted streets of Hong Kong to dry, the same sidewalks on which dogs urinate, birds crap and the government workers spread rat poison! When shark fin images like this hit the world news, these con artists moved their operations to the roofs, out of the public’s sight. But they were soon exposed there too, preparing a food item not in a hygienic, licensed food factory, but illegally on a slimy, filthy roof in Kennedy Town, Hong Kong.


You need only to see how the dish is prepared to understand how pointless the shark content is in shark fin soup, which could more accurately be called chicken-ham-beef soup. When I’ve shown this footage to my Chinese friends, the penny dropped and they now understand why so many are making such a big fuss about the pointlessness of this dish. They also said they felt very cheated!!

The fins that are caught in poor countries of the world are shipped to Hong Kong and China, where they are marked up by 1000% or more. This dry, dusty, half-rotten-looking piece of dead shark is miraculously turned into a delicacy of the super rich, who slurp it up feeling that they are privileged. If only they knew the route first taken by the ingredient that they were consuming. In a country where hand tissues and sterilized wet wipes are a prerequisite before leaving home, I am puzzled why anyone would pay so much for a dish that literally comes from rat-infested streets?

Another puzzle that I am trying to fathom is that if this is truly a dish of the uber-rich, why are some hotels featuring it in all-you-can-eat lunch buffets for $20 USD. In Singapore, I recently visited Chinatown and had a look around. I have seen tins of shark fin soup before, but never pre-prepared ready meals that you can just throw in the microwave. How can this be an Emperor’s Dish?…Ping! Ready in 3 minutes. Shark fin soup for four, all for just $30 USD.

The shark fin trader con-men are trying every avenue in order to make their money; however, surely they are taking a risky, greedy gamble?

  • If the rich see the same dish in ready-made plastic trays, will they still pay over $100 USD per bowl?
  • If it’s not a premium luxury dish, will the average person still want it?


If it’s just an issue of “I love the taste” for someone, then show them this video and ask them if they really need the fin in there? They could just have the soup!


Just like the Emperor in the Hans Christian Anderson short tale, who was prancing around naked as everyone laughed at him behind his back, the shark fin traders are laughing and making a mockery of Asia’s rich, selling them a product that hails from the most unhygienic places on Earth and packaging it as “exclusive.” Meanwhile, they are hoping those rich folk won’t visit the street vendors who are selling the same dish at a fraction of the price.

Stop being duped by these con-men. China has one of the world’s most prestigious histories, filled with iconic examples of culture. The Emperor’s Dish is no longer one of them….

For more information on the global shark crisis, please read: It’s a GLOBAL Shark Crisis.

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