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Sunday Morning at the Dog Market

17 November 2010 Stories and Appreciations 3,404 views No CommentPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

Editor’s note: This piece contains some disturbing imagery. If you’re a dog lover or someone who can’t bear the thought of domesticated animals as something other than pets, read on only at your own discretion.

It was Sam’s idea, and it sounded like a good one, at least four beers into a Saturday night down at The Crown, our local expat watering hole.

“Dude, let’s go to the dog market tomorrow.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Let’s do it. Let’s descend into the belly of the beast. Haven’t you always been curious about it?”

“Sure. But part of me is afraid.”

“That’s exactly why you should go.”

Koreans, like people in many other Asian countries, do, from time to time, eat dogs. The practice isn’t exactly widespread these days, but you don’t have to look too hard to find little family run restaurants serving up boshingtang, the spicy dog meat soup renowned for its health properties, not to mention its effect on what’s known as “stamina.” It is for the latter reason that boshingtang is almost exclusively eaten by middle-aged and older men. It must be said that most young Koreans balk at the idea of dog-eating , and the government — in periodic attempts to avoid the condemnation of more canine-sympathetic foreigners — has even tried to curb the practice, but it is out there. It is part of the culture, and I, for one, am not about to wave my scolding finger at either the patrons or the purveyors.

So the next morning Sam and I boarded the subway rode it to the other side of town. Our heads were hissing from the vat’s worth of cheap beer we had downed the night before. We sipped from big paper cups of Starbucks coffee and said nothing, preparing ourselves for the upcoming encounter. We had both been in the country for two years at this point and had yet to visit the dog market. The time had come.

The Gupo Market is not just a dog market. It is a massive and comprehensive, selling fruit and vegetables, fish of all stripes, pork, chicken, meat, household necessities, spices, rice, clothing, and hardware items. But Sam and I had come for dog, and we found it straight away.

By the time we got out of the subway, I was officially starving. The coffee I had for breakfast was boring a hole in my stomach lining. I was famished and ready to eat. Sam was in similar shape, so it was decided that before heading into the catacombs of the market, we would grab a bite to fuel us for what to come.

But we had no time to duck into a restaurant, for we came onto it straight away – located at the dark end of the market’s main concourse. The first thing that clued me in was the bark and yelp of a dog, echoing up the side street on which we found ourselves. We then came onto a stall to our right. Chickens and ducks were crammed into cages, lorded over by stern-looking old women and their husbands. The place was badly lit and dirty; we sensed that we were in the rougher part of town, the fringe of the city of Busan. Next to the foul was the first dog cage. Ten or so yellow dogs were crammed in. The looked out at us with warm, dark eyes, though you could feel their sense of resignation. They knew what was up. When Koreans talk about dog meat, they usually tell us how the meat dogs are bred for that purpose only. This is true, I’m sure, but the dogs we gazed upon looked like sweet, friendly, pet dogs. They didn’t have the look of livestock. These were individuals — social, healthy looking pups.

For the next two blocks we passed cage after cage of dogs – most of which contained these cute yellow guys, but with some other breeds thrown in for good measure – perhaps a canine butcher’s affirmative action program? Next to the cages were the open air meat cases, containing the skinned carcasses. The cavities were hollowed out, with only the liver and a few other tasty bits remaining. Legs stabbed into the air like those of inverted tables, with the naked tails poking and coiling, wormlike.

As we descended into this market, we tried to maintain our cool, our distance. We were foreigners and while the sellers were eyeing us with obvious suspicion, no one was shooing us away. The people who worked the stalls were leather tough in that way that only old Koreans can be — all spit and scowls — sometimes addressing each other in blunt and guttural Busan saturi, with its hisses, moans, and almost Arabic-sounding throat scrapes. At one point we approached a case to closely inspect a fresh-looking carcass, glistening blood red and brown. The hard-as-rebar old woman tending the front tried to block us from taking a peek, but we ignored her, despite her lethal gaze.

“Looks delicious,” I said to her in Korean. She turned away, unmoved.

We made it out of the side street and paused to take a breath. I had seen countless markets in Korea — with their raw organs, pig heads, and Lovecraftian sea creatures splayed out in full glory — but what I just took in hit me in a deep place. The sour reek of dog s–t also hung in the air, and this combination of sight and smell not only caused me to gag, but succeeded in immediately erasing my ravenous appetite. It seems that lunch would be delayed indefinitely.

After this break to gather our wits and avoid retching, we decided to take another pass down dog alley and try to snap some photos, which would be difficult, as the folks who man the stalls in dog markets are notorious in their aggressive resistance to photos being taken, especially by nosy, tsk-tsk’ing foreigners. As Sam surreptitiously attempted to click a few shots, he realized the battery on his camera had died: so much for the damning evidence, the main reason we had come to this pitiful place to begin with. The scene before us would have to be put to memory alone, and though we got no photos, we did see more sights — some of them unexpected — including cages containing black goats, and one stuffed full of mewwing cats, which had me scratching my head. Dogs, I knew, but cats? I later learned that sometimes the elderly in Korea eat a soup made from cats in an attempt to combat rheumatism and arthritis. The belief is that a cat’s innate flexibility can be passed on to the joints through the broth. By this line of reasoning, California condor flesh should endow us with the power of flight, manatee meat should help us to become wise and gentle swimmers, and unicorn steak should give us the ability to crap rainbows.

Sometimes we just have to surrender to the notion of cultural relativity.

We ended up finding a new wing of the dog area. As we approached one stall, the old woman warmly greeted us in Korean and invited us to check out the wares. She held up a meaty leg cut and shook it vigorously.

“The leg is the most delicious part,” she said, showing us her gold teeth through a grin. She gestured to the scale and nodded, ready to wrap it up for us.

We smiled and politely declined the offer, walking away from the cages and the keepers. As we passed one, I saw a man open the top of the cage and slip a snare around one of the unfortunate occupants, who let out a high-pitch whine.

“Life’s tough, guys,” Sam said.

The man lifted the struggling dog out.

As Sam and I turned down a side alley, and we heard its futile yelps and cries reverberate behind us. We kept on walking into the more welcoming section of the market, where perhaps our lunchtime appetites would return.

Just another day’s work at Gupo.

Chris Tharp

PHOTO BY LUIS JOU GARCIA

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