In a normal year, this is peak season for the chicken farmers of Jiangcun and surrounding villages of Guangdong province. Chicken, along with fish, is an essential course in the Chinese New Year festival at the end of January.
“Without chicken,” said Li Fengkui, a restaurant manager, “there is no feast.”
But that was before Hong Kong caught the “bird flu"--a deadly virus that has inexplicably spread from farm-raised chickens to human beings, leaving four people dead.
Hong Kong health officials ordered the mass slaughter of chickens and banned, indefinitely, the import of chickens from mainland China, suspected to be the source of the mysterious H5N1 avian flu virus that has perplexed medical experts around the world.
Chicken, except for frozen supplies from overseas, virtually disappeared from restaurant menus in Hong Kong, replaced by pork, beef and seafood dishes.
The result for most Hong Kong households is likely to be a chicken-free New Year festival. That spells economic disaster for this part of Guangdong province, which before the flu scare sent an average of 75,000 birds into Hong Kong each day.
At the large open market in Jiangcun, center of the Guangdong poultry business, local farmers have slashed prices, hoping to unload the birds they normally would have shipped to Hong Kong.
“We chicken farmers are going bankrupt because things are going wrong in Hong Kong,” complained Jiang Meilan, who displayed her stock of Rhode Island Reds in wire cages as local customers rode up on motorcycles to inspect them. “If this goes on, some people are going to jump off of buildings.”
“Today I sold 50 chickens,” said another farmer, chewing on the end of a sugar cane. “In the past I could sell 100, maybe 200 birds.”
Despite prices that have fallen 30%, sales have dropped, apparently because the people of Guangdong fear that the flu will spread to them from nearby Hong Kong.
Despite Chinese government assertions that officials have found none of the H5N1 virus in Guangdong farms, some people here have apparently decided to play it safe by cutting chicken from their diets.
“People have stopped eating chicken so much,” said a young farmer at the Three Birds Exchange wholesale market in Tong He township outside the provincial capital, Guangzhou.
Asked about reports by Hong Kong scientists and agricultural experts that the territory’s “bird flu” episode was preceded by a massive number of bird deaths from the virus last February and March here, the young farmer began to speak, but he was interrupted by the market manager, Ye Yongjing, accompanied by a police officer.
“Our chickens have no viruses,” Ye said. “Our business is influenced by the viruses in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong has exaggerated the situation.”
He then instructed the visiting foreign reporter to leave the market.
If a virus outbreak did occur here last year, killing as many as 1 million birds, according to some reports, Guangdong province is either in a state of denial or engaged in a well-orchestrated cover-up.
Provincial agriculture and health officials either declined to meet with a visiting reporter or canceled interviews without explanation.
Farmers in Jiangcun, one of the sites of the alleged outbreak, vigorously denied that such a thing occurred.
“There have been no chicken deaths here,” insisted a farmer in the Jiangcun market. “There has been no chicken death here for 50, even for 100 years.”
Although they officially deny that the “bird flu” virus came from mainland farms, Chinese authorities have agreed to cooperate with the Hong Kong ban on imports and to allow Hong Kong health and agriculture officials inside mainland China to inspect and certify farms.
Meanwhile, residents in this poultry-dependent region are doing their best to downplay the crisis.
“There is no danger eating chicken,” Yue Jing Seafood Restaurant manager Li said.
Her large restaurant, capable of seating several hundred customers, specializes in donkey meat dishes. It serves such fare as “donkey in red sauce,” “hot pot donkey,” “steamed donkey,” and “black pepper donkey.”
But Li insisted that the chicken courses were just as safe.
“Yesterday,” Li said, “we had some Hong Kong businessmen come in here, and they fearlessly ordered chicken.”
In fact, not even the most cautious epidemiologist has claimed that eating cooked chicken poses the slightest danger of transmitting the H5N1 virus. Some have speculated that the danger arises from handling live poultry and being exposed to fecal matter.
However, still unexplained is why none of the 20 hospitalized victims of the virus in Hong Kong were poultry workers or poultry sellers who were directly exposed to infected birds.
The situation has made He Sui, the fashionably dressed director of the large White Cloud chicken breeding farm in the Baiyun area outside Guangzhou, wonder out loud about the fragility of the Hong Kong population.
The spotlessly clean White Cloud farm is staffed by workers in white gowns, masks and sterilized rubber boots. A stand of bamboo outside the chicken coops keeps out dust, and roads leading into the farm, which produces 4 million chicks a year and sells them to local farmers, have water troughs where vehicle tires are scrubbed.
Farm director He, who supervises 60 farm employees, said she lost no birds to the virus and knows of no cases in surrounding farms.
“I think that it is funny that I have been working here for more than 10 years,” she said, “and I seldom even get a cold. My co-workers are also seldom sick. I’m wondering if Hong Kong people are weaker somehow.”