Sting operation | Foreign’s media’s infatuation with scorpions on sticks

No Beijing Olympic Flashback series would be complete without covering the media’s obsession with a food that is about as common to the average Beijinger as sea cucumber is to New Yorkers: scorpions on a stick. With all the elegance of freak show gawkers, journalists flocked to street foods in Wangfujing to highlight a food few ever eat rather than to cover, say, jianbing or Beijing duck. A few recognized the situation for what it was and thus received Olympics medals from the Official Scorpions on a Stick Monitoring unit, which shares the same headquarters as this blog.

Scorpions on a stick: The medalists

(Posted 26 August 2008)

Thousands of journalists are leaving Beijing and they have served the world well by informing it about that local delicacy known as scorpions on a stick. But one wonders about who will tell the follow-up stories? About the impending unemployment among vendors when the reporters are gone. About rising housing prices due to excess lumber having been used for scorpion sticks. About the despondency of scorpions themselves who no longer feel wanted.

In any case, it seems time for this media monitoring project to look back on all those scorpion stories and award a few medals to the best.


Dave Barry, Miami Herald

Key performance:

“The market was bustling with people. But here’s the thing. The Chinese people I saw all seemed to be buying things like lamb kebabs and fruit. On the other hand, the people gathered around the centipedes and scorpions on a stick were, in almost every case, tourists or American TV reporters doing fun features on weird Chinese food. These people were basically lining up to eat scorpions. A reporter would hold up a skewer of scorpions, and the camera person would get a close-up shot. Then the reporter would scrunch up his or her face, take a bite of a scorpion, chew, swallow, and declare that it really wasn’t that bad. Then, depending on how in-depth the feature was, the reporter might take a bite of seahorse.

“I watched as this procedure was repeated with several different TV crews. Then the truth hit me: The Chinese don’t eat scorpions. They feed their scorpions to TV reporters. I would not be surprised to learn that the Chinese word for scorpion is ‘TV reporter food.'”

Barry just missed a perfect performance as he limited his observations to TV reporters. Trust me, Dave, print media are just as fascinated by scorpions.


Dan Steinberg, Washington Post

Key performance:

“Foreign media doing scorpions-on-sticks pieces is just about the lamest form of journalism imaginable. It’s hackneyed, cliched, predictable and useless. It relies entirely on the gross-out factor, and is basically Fear Factor on location. It creates an image of life in Beijing that is demonstrably fake, no different than if every visiting journalist in the U.S. sent home pieces on American food, based entirely on FedEx Field concessions or the Texas State Fair. And, on top of all that, it’s just lazy.

“So here’s my version.”

Steinberg provided a “meta” view and even wrote a second article about the scorpions phenomenon.


Iain Marlow, The Toronto Star

Chris O’Brien, Forbes

Both wrote good pieces—Marlow about street food, O’Brien about the broader scene—and put scorpions on a stick in its proper place as a fringe food.

Failing to made the podium were stories by the Globe & Mail, Wall Street Journal, NBC, LA Times and BBC, among others.

Of course, the item that literally, ahem, rocked the street food world were *the* Scorpions on sticks.

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