Marks of status in China are going to the dogs

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

July 22, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- China's capital is going to the dogs.

"VIP dogs," as poodles are known in Chinese. "Sausage dogs" (dachshunds). "Tiger-headed dogs" (bulldogs). "Droopy-eared, short-legged, rabbit-hunting dogs" (beagles). And of course "Beijing dogs" (Pekingese).

Name the breed of dog, and you're apt to find it here -- harbored under a coat, riding along in a bike basket, tethered to a rope amid a crowd of gawkers, crammed into a tiny cage for sale at a curbside market.

Over the last year or so in Beijing, Shanghai and other large Chinese cities, acquiring a pet dog has become one of the favored ways for China's newly well-off to show off. Estimates of the number of dogs in Beijing -- a city with more than 11 million residents -- now start at more than 100,000.

The new interest in dogs runs against Chinese regulations, history and culture.

With few exceptions, public health laws prohibit dogs in Beijing. Keeping all kinds of pets was politically condemned as bourgeois during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. Some Chinese like to eat dog meat in the winter, and many don't have much good to say about the Western world's so-called best friend.

The dog craze is also at odds with the Chinese language, in which "gou," the pronunciation for "dog," is creatively employed in a wide variety of negative, often scatological ways.

Among the common idioms tasteful enough to be printed here: "a commander with a dog's head" for an inept boss and "a dog's leg" for a hired thug. Then there were the "capitalist running dogs" of the Maoist era.

Russian traders plying the new "silk road" between Moscow and Beijing by train seemed to have sparked the fascination with dogs a few years ago. When they first arrived here, the Russians may not have had much to offer, but a smuggled dog could be traded for Chinese-made down coats and ultimately a good deal of cash back in Moscow.

Now there is a dog farm and amusement park in Beijing's suburbs, where Chinese tourists pay to walk dogs and to observe a pair of dogs dressed up as an emperor and empress. Veterinary clinics have opened. Large dog markets also have cropped up. And dogs are sold for phenomenal sums for China -- typically from $500 to several thousand dollars.

"Dogs have become status symbols," says Tan Yuecheng, a 38-year-old dog-peddler in Beijing. "In some apartment buildings, there are 100 dogs. All the ladies come out in the morning, holding their little dogs in their arms, showing them off. The smaller the dog, the better -- the more status."

Mr. Tan is holding a 3-month-old Pekingese. It is not much bigger than one of his hands. He says he bought it near the Russian border in northeast China and brought it back by train under his coat.

His asking price is about $520. It would be higher, he says, but "too many people are selling dogs these days. Everybody on the trains from the north is bringing back dogs."

This morning, Mr. Tan is among about a half-dozen peddlers -- most with just one dog -- standing around in what may Beijing's scruffiest dog market, a walkway by a putrid, gray-green channel of water near a large vegetable market on the city's east side.

Nearby are booths stocked with dog magazines, collars and leashes. On a steep concrete embankment leading down to the fetid stream, the body of a large dead dog -- its leash still attached -- bakes in the morning sun. It appears to have been flung there by someone.

"A lot of people don't know how to take care of dogs," Mr. Tan explains. "So I have to teach them what to feed their dogs. If the dog gets sick, I'll come over and tell them what to do."

A few of the dog peddlers here are rank amateurs.

Xin Xiuying, 54, a retired street sweeper, cradles a 2-month-old, black-and-white dog in her arms, one of two puppies in her pet dog's recent litter.

She says she wouldn't be selling it, except that she now has three dogs in her two-room apartment and her husband ordered her to get rid of the pups.

She only wants about $85 for the dog. "It's just like a baby," the grandmother coos. "Dogs are so much fun."

But in this market, most just see big bucks in small dogs.

"Of course," sniffs Zong Xiaoshan, another vendor. "Who would raise a dog for no money?"

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