POON Shuk Wah
RGC General Research Fund
Abattoirs form an important part of modern food history. Although killing animals and consuming their meat was nothing new, the emergence of abattoirs marks massive changes in food culture and moral sensibilities in the modern world. Meat took on a new symbolic meaning as a source of power in the modern era. Furthermore, abattoirs, in contrast to old-fashioned private slaughterhouses, has been regarded as a civilizing institution where animals are humanely killed and meat is handled and inspected with high sanitary standards.
This research examines the abattoirs in Shanghai’s International Settlement by contextualizing them in the local political and cultural milieu from the late Qing to the early PRC period. Initially boycotted by Chinese butchers, the 1893 new abattoir was hailed by a Shanghai newspaper as “a model of cleanliness and orderly arrangement.” In 1933, the old abattoir was replaced by a multi-story building equipped with lairage halls, a cold storage plant, and a meat market. As the largest abattoir in the Far East and won the acclaim as a “masterpiece of architectural ingenuity” in its contemporary time, the abattoir became a destination of study tours of Chinese officials and university students.
The abattoirs not only epitomized the diffusion of modern technology and meat-eating culture in the city, but also played a role in the making of the urban identity in modern Shanghai. The abattoir faced both admiration and contempt in late Qing and Republican China. Chinese reformers saw it as a modernist and civilized project essential for urban development and public health. Vegetarians and Buddhists, appalled by its massive scale of killing and the growing popularity of meat-eating, propagated the health hazard of meat consumption and the cruelty abattoirs afflicted on animals. After assuming power in 1949, officials in Shanghai regulated the slaughter of animals, particularly cattle for consumption for the sake of agricultural recovery.
The purpose of this research is threefold: (1) to enrich understanding of the politics and culture of food by examining the production, distribution, and consumption of meat from late Qing to Communist China; (2) to shed light on global technological diffusion by analyzing the ways in which the design and management of public abattoirs in Shanghai were influenced by the city’s racial power politics and Chinese indigenous culture; (3) to contribute to animal studies by analyzing how abattoirs and meat-eating served as a prism reflecting Chinese people’s moral sensibilities towards animals’ suffering.