Chinatown Undercover


CHINATOWN JOURNAL

October 1995

If the stereotyped Halloween witch were to stumble into where Anthony Marr now found himself, she would be like the proverbial kid-in-a-candy-store. In the glassed-in display shelves were trays upon trays and jars upon jars of dried this and that – all once alive, or parts of something once alive. There were dried mushrooms of different species, some as large as dinner plates. There were dried stems and roots and seeds and fruits, mostly brown or black, of medicinal plants unidentifiable to the casual eye. There were dried animals galore – sea cucumbers, sea horses, lizards, deer musk glands, seal penises, shark fins, swallows’ nests, thin slices of antlers still in velvet. And these were just what were above the counter.

It was a store called Wei Hai on Pender street near Main, the one with the big yellow awning in front – one of about two dozen traditional Chinese pharmacies amidst the restaurants and groceries and curio shops and book stores of Vancouver’s historical and bustling Chinatown.

Unsavory as some of the animal parts were, Anthony Marr’s quarry lay deeper in the store. There was a section where the so-called Patent Tradition Chinese Medicines were displayed. These were highly packaged items, usually pills in bottles, and bottles in glossy and brightly coloured paper boxes.

Anthony moved slowly, with stops here and there, towards the back of the store, using his peripheral vision to monitor the three store clerks behind the counters. There was no other customer in the store, and this made him somewhat uncomfortable. As he pretended interest in a bank of trays containing different kinds and grades of gin seng, he glanced out of the store across the busy street, and saw the large beta-cam on a tripod aimed straight at him, and the giant of a bearded cameraman crouching behind it, and the blonde woman reporter standing beside it, all standing out like sore thumbs amidst the smaller, dark-haired people milling around them, looking curiously at them, then at me. Fortunately, up to this point, the three store clerks hadn’t shown signs of having noticed the anomaly across the street.

“If you can hear me, raise your hand,” Anthony murmured into the conceal mike under his lapel, and saw the reporter do just that.

This would be the third time he showed his face on television, but the first time on national TV. This should be the one to make the difference on the federal government level. He glanced at the three store clerks to see if there was any sign of recognition or suspicion, but they seemed to just be going about their business, not that they had yet taken a close look at him, which they soon would.

Anthony moved deeper towards the back of the store and began scanning as nonchalantly as possible the multi-coloured paper boxes lined up row upon row, all bearing Chinese writings and pictorial designs. There were bear bile pills, crocodile bile pills, seal penis pills, dog penis pills, deer musk pills, rhino skin pills, pangolin pills, but he had no need to look much further to find what he was looking for. On one of the higher shelves sat a large collection of boxes, about ten assortments in total, all bearing different renditions of the same majestic animal, and all sporting the beautiful Chinese character in various calligraphic styles, pronounced in Mandarin as “hu”, and in Cantonese as “fu” – tiger.

He reached up and took down a few different boxes and began checking the ingredients lists printed on their backs. Most listed about a dozen ingredients each, all by their Latin and Chinese names, mostly medicinal plants that seemed to vary from brand to brand, but the one thing in common was in the list of contents, the Latin name “Ossis Tigris” – tiger bone. Its listed concentrations ranged from 6% to 24% from brand to brand. Price – $8 for the box with 6%, and $22 for the one listing 24%.

He was looking at the boxes, mostly green or amber, but what he saw was red. Over the years, he’d been watching TV wildlife documentaries by the score, often in Caucasian company. Whenever the subject matter was the tiger or rhino or elephant or bear, especially the tiger, the concluding messages were usually one and the same, that these magnificent beasts were going down due largely to the Oriental, largely Chinese, use of their body parts for medicine. His sentiments at those times were disgust, outrage, embarrassment and shame. At those times, he could feel his friends trying very hard not to look at him, not to say anything remotely anti-Chinese, when he knew that each and every one of them, like him, were about to explode. And the harder they tried, the worse it made him feel.

Finally, at the end of a National Geographic program about tigers in 1994, he said to those present, “Look at me. Am I not Chinese? Spit it out.”

After still another few long seconds of uncomfortable silence, his friend Grant finally abided, “Alright, no offence to you personally, Tony, but this Chinese tradition is obscene! It doesn’t heal me of anything; it just makes me sick!” A significant pause. “Well? Does this make you feel better?”

“You racist bastard!” mock-fumed Anthony. Then, seriously, “Yeah, man, that’s better. Yes, it is obscene. So how do we stop it?”

“You answered your own question before you posed it,” said Grant. “I’m a Whitey, see? I don’t want to be branded a racist, which I know I will if I as much as lifted a finger, especially the middle one.”

Then, almost inexorably, all eyes fell on Anthony, and stayed there. After looking at them one by one in turn, he returned his gaze to Grant and said, mock-seriously, “Okay, you have a point there, but keep it in your pants.” Then, seriously, “I do agree with you, Grant. It does take a Chinese person to do it, and you’re looking at him.”

One of the clerks moved towards him and said, in Cantonese – the prevalent dialect in most North American Chinatowns – “Can I help you with something?”

It was a woman in her 30s, who now was looking point blank at his face, thin smile unwavering.

“Yes, maybe,” he answered, “I’m looking for some tiger bone medicine for my father, and a bear gall bladder for my mother. I see you have some tiger bone medicines here, but do you have any bear gall bladders?”

The woman looked at once nervous, her smile evaporated and her eyes shifted involuntarily until they returned to his face again. “Just a moment,” she said, then slipped through a door in the back wall.

Anthony returned to looking at the tiger bone medicines in his hands, but he could sense a sudden tenseness that had overtaken the two remaining clerks behind the counters. Now they were unabashedly scrutinizing him, and still, there was no sign of recognition.

Momentarily, the door squeaked open again and a large man emerged, followed by the woman. He was of about the same height as Anthony’s 5’9” – medium tall for the Chinese – but twice in girth.

“I can outrun him for sure, and can probably kick faster, but I’d better not engage him in a wrestling match,” Anthony thought.

Since the man was facing the front of the store, he was in line of sight of the TV beta-cam and the reporter across the street, but his attention was concentrated on Anthony, who took a quick step towards the back and took down another box of tiger bone medicine, thus effectively turning the man and the woman away from the front.

“So, you want to buy a bear gall bladder?” The man was looking Anthony up and down, away from his face and back again.

To counteract the proverbial Oriental inscrutability of his opponent, Anthony invoked his own. “Maybe more than one, depending on the price,” he said steadily.

“What’s your name?”

“Just call me Mr. Lee,” he said without a blink. Extending his hand, he added, “and you’re Mr….”

The man ignored him. “Where’re you from?”

“Hong Kong.”

“How long here for?”

“About three years.”

“Where did you get your gall bladders from before?”

“I hunted.”

“It’s illegal to take the gall bladder in BC. Legal in Quebec, but not here.”

“So it’s illegal,” said Anthony with a shrug. “It’s also illegal to buy or sell them.”

“So why do you stop hunting?”

“Who says I have? It’s just too much work. Too messy. And lately, too much heat.”

“What do you mean ‘too much heat’?”

“Too much talk about gall bladders. People are getting upset.” He shifted on his feet to a new stance. “Look. Are you doing business or are we just going to stand and talk all day?”

“Show me your driver’s license.”

“What are you? Some kind of traffic cop? No. I don’t carry my driver’s license around when I shop for bear gall bladders. I’m sure you understand.”

The man frowned. “Where do you live. I’ll deliver the bladders to you.”

“Not so fast. How much are they?”

“One grand and up.”

“Let’s see them.”

The man hesitated a moment, then brought out two fig shaped objects from his pocket, black, rock hard, one about the size of a thumb, the other that of a small pear. “One grand and five grand.”

Anthony took the larger one and brought it to his nose. It was so completely dry it was almost odorless. He pretended to raise it up closer to the light to see it better, but in fact to bring it to the beta-cam’s attention. “Nice, but too expensive. I can get an even bigger one at less than half the price.”

The man held out his hand and Anthony put the gall back into it. “Where’s it from?” he asked.

“A bear gall is a bear gall is a bear gall.”

“Assuming first of all it’s a bear gall and not a cow gall or pig gall. But even if it is a bear gall, it could be from a local Black bear, or a Grizzly, or an Asiatic Black bear, and prices vary among them.”

“Four grand. Take it or leave it.”

“I’ll have to think about it.”

“If you buy ten or more, I’ll give you a good deal.”

“How good?”

“Three grand each, same size.”

“Not good enough.”

“You name your price. I’ll say yes or no.”

“I’ll buy this one for two thousand. Bottom line. After that, I’ll talk volume.”

“No. If you change your mind, come back. Meanwhile, excuse me. I’m busy.”

“Fine. I don’t have enough cash on me anyway. I’ll just buy these tiger medicines for now.”

“As you wish.” And with that, the man disappeared again through the door.

Anthony sorted through the boxes in his hand, selected half a dozen and put the rest back on the shelf. He paid for them at the counter, exited the store and j-walked across the busy street straight at the beta-cam. Pulling one of the boxes from the bag, he brought it right up to the lens.

“So, Anthony, tell me what you bought,” asked the reporter, sticking her own mike in his face.

“Well, I bought, right off the shelf, six different boxes of Chinese patent medicines containing or purporting to contain tiger bone as an ingredient. This one I’m showing you,” he said, while rotating the box in front of the camera so that the ingredients list now faced the lens, “lists 24% tiger bone by weight.”

He noticed a few pedestrians stopping in their tracks to gawk at him and what he had in his hands, and tried to ignore them. “Did you get any shots of the bear gall bladder, by the way?” he asked.

“We sure did,” boomed the cameraman, “and your whole conversation with the store owner, whatever you said.”

“So, what did you talk about?” asked the reporter.

“Basically, they have bear gall bladders for sale under the counter, origin undisclosed. They want at least four thousand dollars for a big one, less by the dozen.” Having been on TV before, he had learned to give sound bites, not long discourses.

“So, what is the legal status of bear gall bladders?”

“The legal status of bear gall bladders,” he began, having also learned to repeat the question before answering it, “depends on the country or province you’re in. All the Asiatic bear species are endangered and importation of their body-parts is internationally illegal. In Canada, the law varies from province to province. In British Columbia and Manitoba, for example, bear gall bladders, even those taken from Canadian bears, are illegal to possess and to sell. In Ontario, they are illegal to sell, but legal to possess. In Quebec, they are legal both to possess and to sell.”

“Does this pose a problem?”

“Yes, this poses a big problem. Poached bear galls in BC, for example, can be laundered in Quebec. They’ll even issue you a number and tag for each gall for selling and exporting purposes.”

“What is the penalty for violations in BC?”

“The penalty for violations in BC is unreasonably light. Maximum $10,000, and/or 6 months in prison. The Korean man recently convicted of possessing 88 bear gall bladders and four times as many bear paws for sale-purposes was fined $3,500 and no jail time. This is less than the street value of the one single gall I showed you today. It is considered just the cost of doing business, and a very low risk business at that.”

By now, a large crowd had gathered around the trio and their imposing machine. Anthony took a glance around and was shocked to see the store owner standing right behind the cameraman, glaring daggers at him. He felt a small but definite shove in the small of his back. He glanced back at the reporter and saw no special alarm on her face about whoever was standing behind him.

“And what about these tiger bone medicines. Are they legal?”

“Tiger bone medicines are internationally illegal. Canada does not allow them to be imported, but currently it is legal to openly sell them on Canadian store selves.”

“This makes no sense.”

“Exactly.”

“Can you explain that?”

“The international organization called Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species – CITES – classifies various species on their conservation status. CITES I means endangered, CITES II means threatened. Any time a species is classified CITES I, they cannot be internationally traded, in whole or part, dead or alive. But then of course they are smuggled, and the control of whatever smuggled into a certain country depends on the internal laws of that country. In Canada, case in point, there is no such internal law in effect. So, essentially, you cannot import these tiger bone medicines, but if you can smuggle them in, you could openly sell them, which is what I’m in the process of demonstrating.”

He stole another glance at the store-owner again. If looks could kill…

“What is your message to the government?”

“I have two messages to the government. One, that all provinces should make possessing and selling bear gall bladders illegal, and the fines of violation should at least be increased to match the street value of the goods seized. Two, that the selling of endangered species items should be banned throughout Canada, and the penalty for smuggling and selling violations should be high enough to be a deterrent.”

“Can you think of anything to add?”

“Yes. Tigers and some Asian bears are within one decade of extinction, and our North American bears are not far behind. There is no time to wait. Immediate action is required.”

“Well, that’s great. Thank you, Mr. Marr.” The reporter extended her hand and Anthony shook it.

Turning to the cameraman, the reporter said, “Let’s go and interview the store owner.”

“He’s right here,” said Anthony without hesitation, pointing at the man.

The cameraman needed no prompting and rotated the beta-cam towards the store-owner, and the reporter turned towards him without a break in her stride. “So, how many bear gall bladders do you sell a month, sir?” She pointed her mike at him like an accusing finger.

The man’s eyebrows went up, his face went blank. Then quickly, he brought up his hand to block the lens, and, glaring at Anthony with renewed venom, he hissed a single line in Cantonese before dashing into the nearest alley, “You are a dead man.”

1995-11-22-3 The Vancouver Courier

by Kerry Gold

[China-born environmentalist says many Chinese immigrants to urbanized to care about conservation]

…While his current campaign focus is the illegal trade in bear and tiger parts, he says he’ll get involved in any environmental issue…

1995-12-02-6 The Vancouver Sun

by Nicholas Read

[Animal parts for sale, and it’s legal]

… “The Chinese awareness is really not there,” Marr says. “Maybe the only person you saw in Chinatown today who knows or cares about the plight of the tiger was me.”…

1995-12-06-3 Ming Pao Daily (Chinese), Vancouver

by Eric Chan

[Ma Seeu Sung spreads environmentalism into Chinese community]

…’If we don’t change our ways and drive the tiger to extinction, our reputation will be forever mud,’ says Ma Seeu Sung…”

1995-12 Sing Tao Daily (Chinese), Vancouver

by H.N. Kwok

[Anthony Marr takes pay-cut to save environment]

…When asked why he made this change, he said simply, “I just find my present work more meaningful.”…

1995-12-18 Chinatown News

by Wanda Chow

[Chinese environmentalist campaigning to change centuries-old tradition]

… Perhaps because Marr is a Chinese person willing to speak out… he has had plenty of media attention. The public’s reaction? One Maple Grove school teacher recently said, “For years I’ve been waiting for someone like him to step forward.”

1996-01-08-1 Times Colonist, Victoria

by Malcolm Curtis

[Tiger, tiger, put it right]

… “If major endangered species of the world – bear, elephant, tiger, rhino – become extinct as a result of Chinese demand for their body parts, I would consider that a very serious crime against nature,” Marr said in an interview…

1996-01-21-7 The Vancouver Courier

by Kerry Gold

[Chinese activist fearless]

… “My response is, I’ve got to be accountable first and foremost to myself, and I’m not going to compromise myself (by worrying) about offending certain people,” said Anthony Marr…

1996-01-28-7 The Vancouver Courier

by Mrs. V. Kennedy

[Animal torture justifies anger]

To the editor: Your article on Anthony Marr was an eye-opener. Now I realize why those who struggle for the ethical treatment of animals are so vehemently angry…

1996-04-09 Ming Pao Daily News, Vancouver

by Eric Chan

[Federal wildlife trade law soon in force]

…Ma Seeu Sung hopes the new law will significantly empower Canadian law against the international illegal endangered species trade…

1996-04-10-3 The Vancouver Echo

by Mike Bell

[Asian community takes on animal parts trade]

It will take more than a little gall to stop the massive Chinese trade in animal parts, but Anthony Marr has a feeling deep in his heart that he’s the one who can make a difference…

1996-04-10-3 Associated Press

[Poaching surges for bear parts]

… “Given a choice between a bottle of synthetic UDCA (Urso-deoxycholic Acid) and a real bear gall bladder, an old-timer will choose the latter every time; it’s half medicine and half mystique. It’s hard to fight superstition with a test tube,’ says Marr…

… “If the Chinese really want to be modern, on par with the West, we have to do a lot of soul searching,” he said…

1996-04-12-5 Sing Tao Daily, Vancouver

[Grizzly-bear-poaching penalty increased to $25,000 max]

…Anthony Marr says that the new penalty, though raised, is still too lenient. For a criminal who trade in millions of dollars, a penalty of $25,000 is “less than GST”…

1996-04-14-7 The Richmond News

by Nevil Judd

[Anti-poaching activist disappointed with response from local schools]

… “These areas are the epicentre of Chinese activity,” said Marr… “Certainly, the demand side of the equation rests squarely on the shoulders of Chinese, Japanese and Korean cultures…”…

1996-04 Vancouver Magazine

by Shawn Blore

[Loaded for bear]

… “Canada’s laws could use an aphrodisiac,” says Marr. “Where fighting endangered species trade is concerned, it is more or less impotent.”…