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The social life of Birds’ Nest Soup

Bird’s Nest soup is currently a luxury yet popular food in mainland China, yet few people are aware of its origin and historical transformation. Commerce in early modern empires, and nation states during colonial expansion, stimulated the circulation of bird’s nest and migratory populations beyond regional or national boundaries.


Yu Xin is Doctor’s degree in the Anthropology Department of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, with her research on the history and current status of Bird’s Nest trading between Sarawak (Malaysia), Hong Kong and mainland China.



Chinese Pharmacy


Spotlit in their own vitrine, several cups of edible bird’s nest arranged in a circle, are carefully preserved and displaced at the center of one drugstore. Just when one wonders why going through so much trouble for a food, the price tag reveals the truth: 80RMB for a gram ( a cup of edible birds’ nest weight 5~10 gram), it means a box of it (usually 200 grams) could be easily sold up to 16000RMB(the threshold of personal income tax is 5000RMB in mainland China !One will be surprised one more time when finds out the annual import status of this special food: it is estimated that in 2017, 81.4 tons of birds’ nest were imported from Malaysia and Indonesia, not to mention a much larger amount were smuggled into mainland China from other southeast Aisa countries, that is to say, impossible to appear in statistics.




Made from the hardened saliva of swallow, in Chinese food culture Edible Birds’ Nest is believed to possess extraordinary medicinal efficacy, including improving skin condition, warding off tuberculosis, etc. Since the abolish of one-child policy, birds’ nest became more popular when mothers in mainland China find them pregnant with the state’s permission and even encouragement, and believing bird’s nest could strengthen fetus as well as mothers.


So what social lives do EBN go through before they appear in front of Chinese consumers?


Chinese empire and bird’s nest soup

Around 1400 B.C., The Ming emperor’s envoy, Zheng He, visited the island chains of SOUTHEAST ASIA to enforce political alliance and trading relationships, initiating varies trade, birds’ nest among them. Since the 17th century the importation from SOUTHEAST ASIA of bird’s nest to China entered local official records in China, showing it became a regular trade. Before 19th century, birds’ nest was initially collected by indigenous peoples in various parts of Southeast Asia, traded in port cities by businessmen from different cultural background such as Malays, Arabs, and Chinese, finally consumed by Chinese. By the mid-19th century, although collecting was still conducted by the indigenous, the trade of birds’ nest and its processing gave way to a Chinese monopoly, when immigrants gradually moved inland to the production region, and provided the natives with Chinese industrial products at a highly competitive price, and sending bird’s nest back home served as a mean of immigrant remittance.





Colonial impacts and the birds’ nest trade

Significantly, it is true that Chinese trading for luxury food items precedes Western colonial forces, mercantile contacts of the 18th and 19th centuries and the trading monopoly in luxury seafood had never fallen outside Chines hands. However, it was the colonial forces that greatly transformed the ways and structures of commercial and migration network, when European colonialists began to collaborate with Chinese emigrants to develop a worldwide trading system. Moreover, demand for labor in mines and plantations all over the world, coupled with unstable political situations and social unrest in China within this period, led to an increasing number of Chinese immigrants to SOUTHEAST ASIA, America and Australia. In this picture, the originally “peripheral” of the Chinese world such as Hong Kong, Macau and other port cities along the coast of south China, have historically served as centers for foreign trade, emigration and foreign labor recruitment. It also explains reasons of the great demand for birds’ nest in China, especially in southern China, during Ming and Qing Dynasty.



Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong Island



Formation of the market

Bird's nest trade and market formation in 19th century went through three stages. In 18th and early 19th century, Fujian Merchants took Xiamen as the center of overseas trade between Nanyang and China. With the fall of Chinese control over overseas trade, in the mid-19th century, the merchants of Fujian and Guangdong took Shanghai as the center of the entrepot trade, and formed a market organization composed of domestic trade and foreign trade. In the late 19th century, Teochew Merchant's entrepot trade centered around Hong Kong was further derived from the development of an independent section in the trade network, i.e. bird's nest processing. It concludes the rise and fall of modern Marine trade port in China, the changing division of labor between sailing boat and steamship, changing trend and path of immigration, along with the development of manufacture, constitutes the motivation of this historical development.



Shanghai, center for commerce


Commerce in early modern empires, and nation states during colonial expansion, stimulated the circulation of food and migratory populations beyond regional or national boundaries. The Chinese diaspora around the world, especially during the past five centuries in SOUTHEAST ASIA, has contributed to the current status of Chinese foodways.




Copyright images: CC BY-SA 3.0, commons. wikimedia.org, Jason Goh on Pixabay, De Continentalis - CC BY-SA 3.0, commons. wikimedia.org, Victoria Laroche Creux on unsplash.com, 朗诣(Lang Yi) Lãng Nghệ on Pixabay.