Olympic flashback | Scorpions on a Stick

The world’s top media outlets poured into Beijing fourteen years ago for the Summer Olympics. While there to mostly report on sports, the biggest side event seemed to be who could post the best “scorpions on a stick” story.

NBC, Washington Post, The Sun, ESPN, Wall Street Journal, Sydney Morning Herald and lots more made the journey to the Wangfujing night market to give the world the scoop on a delicacy that almost no Beijinger ever eats. And I made it my mission to do play-by-play on that sensational, and at times ridiculous, coverage.

To be fair, at least some reporters did admit they found it a bit outlandish, too, though that wasn’t going to stop them.

Anyway, as we near the start of the 2022 Winter Olympics, I dug up some excerpts from those stories. Check them out.


[Excerpts taken from Beijing Boyce posts in July and August of 2008]

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

They’re weird, they’re wacky, and they’re just the thing to make the folks back home go, “Ewww, gross.”

They’re scorpions on a stick!

You just know foreign journalists will use these little suckers during the Olympics for a quick laugh in a pinch (scorpions, pinch, get it!?). I guess that’s fair. After all, people in Beijing eat scorpions every single day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as mid-afternoon and midnight snacks, on picnics and at weddings, and to amuse visitors.

Anyway, in the spirit of James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly, who chronicles overuse of the boiled-frog analogy, I’m taking on the Olympian media monitoring task of scorpion-on-a-stick references because, well, because I care.

Scorpions were not an easy choice. There are any number of topics the media will soon trample to death like baby kittens beneath a stampeding herd of terrified buffalo – wild taxi drivers, squat toilets, Chinese youth and their Western ways, etc.

And I realize its natural for tourists to be intrigued by scorpions on a stick. I simply wanted to give long-term expatriates, many of whom feel unease in these turbulent times, something familiar about which to roll their eyes during the coming months.

Let’s get snapping

c

Category: An ass talking about a donkey?

Candidate: Bob HoltzmanESPN

Excerpt:

It helps to be courageous at some of the local restaurants, as well. Since our vocabulary was limited, our camera crew generally did the ordering for our entire group. Grouse eggs. Fennel seed dumplings. Donkey. Donkey?! I tried it. I’ll leave it at that. If donkey doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the option of wandering out to one of the street vendors for some fried scorpions on a stick. Don’t worry; if you’re not a fan of scorpions, they also offer fried seahorses.

Comment: Holtzman gets the equivalent of an NBA triple-double by including donkeys, scorpions and seahorses in one paragraph. The only way to top this would have been a reference to boiled silkworms and/or the penis restaurant.

* * *

Category: But squatters make it easier to pass scorpions

Candidate: John PowersBoston Globe

Excerpt:

While some food items can be unsettlingly exotic for the American palate (the Wangfujing Night Market offers silkworms and scorpions on a stick), most of the domestic cuisine, like kung pao chicken, will look reasonably familiar. But if you want Brazilian, French, Spanish, Russian, or thin-crust pizza, there are places that serve it and locals who eat it.

Analysis: This article is generally informative and well-written, but it loses points for using the word “capitalist” in its subtitle, given that the Globe discovered China had free-market tendencies as far back as, uh, November 2007. I also wonder about Powers equating “modern” and “squat toilet.” Pressing your ass against the same seat that a thousand other people have used is more sanitary / modern than having your bottom airborne? Really?

That’s a thought to consider while munching on some scorpions – or seahorses – on a stick.

* * *

Category: You are what you eat, Garry

Candidate: Garry LinnellHerald Sun

Clip: [Actually, this story is about penis. Oh, it also mentions scorpions.]

“No, we came here for the food, in all its bizarre, exotic glory. Take your pick. Scorpion kebab? Roast dog leg? Deep fried worm? And for the absolutely fearless, what about the ham sandwich on offer at the Olympic media centre?”

Category: You are what you eat, II

Candidate: Staff reporterThe Sun

Clip: [This is another item about penis.]

“DOG may have been banned from menus at Beijing’s Olympic Games but Brits can still scoff a stomach churning array of food – including SEAL PENIS. Olympic chiefs will not be serving dishes containing man’s best friend at official Olympic restaurants – in a bid to make visitors feel comfortable. But they WILL offer a menu worthy of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here including deep-fried scorpions and sea urchins, cow stomach, turtle and brains in a hot pot.”

Category: They made me write it

Candidate: Mitch Moxley, Globe & Mail

Clip:

Every evening, a mix of camera-wielding tourists and locals gather at this 2,000-square-metre bazaar, where red lanterns mark vendors hawking standard Beijing street fare such as boiled corn — as well as slightly more exotic dishes including fried scorpion and lamb penis. [Moxley adds context in the next paragraph.] Truth be told, while the unsuspecting Olympic visitor to Beijing might find a crispy duck’s head or sautéed pig’s intestine on their plate, most people I have met here certainly do not eat everything but tables and planes. [Fair play]

* * *

Category: I don’t get out of the house much

Candidate: Hal HabibPalm Beach Post

Clip:

Mug of Tsingtao, skewer of fried scorpion – that will be more challenging for the uninitiated, not to mention songwriters trying to find something that rhymes with it.

* * *

Category: Unfortunately, the scorpions aren’t curried

Candidate: DNA India [The title is: “Skewered scorpion? Coming right up…”]

Clip:

These days, about the only wildness you’ll experience [in Beijing] is in the menu itself: deep fried cricket or skewered scorpion or seahorse kebab is the standard bill of fare in Wangfujing Snack Street in downtown Beijing.

* * *

Category: Hey, I have to at least *mention* it

Candidate: Iain Marlow, The Toronto Star

Clip:

In Beijing, be adventurous. Flee the main streets and get lost in the alleyways. Try the tripe and the duck neck and maybe even the scorpions. [This comes in the last paragraph of an excellent article about Beijing street food. Fair play.]

* * *

Category: Hey, I have to at least *mention* it, II

Candidate: Mary MacVeanLos Angeles Times

Clip:

From the contemporary offerings of the Courtyard, diners can travel, culinarily, to the street fare of Beijing, where vendors sell such things as scorpions or starfish on skewers. [Again, this is stuck in the last paragraph of an otherwise interesting piece. Fair play.]

* * *

Category: Penned as she ate a steak from a cute furry kangaroo?

Candidate: Mary-Anne ToySydney Morning Herald

Clip:

DOG may be off the menu for the Olympic Games, but adventurous gastronomes can still choose from a dazzling array of culinary delights in Beijing – from seal’s penis to deep-fried scorpions and brains in hot pot.

* * *

Category: I would have put the scorpions at number 6

Candidate: Alan Paul, NBC

Clip:

After dark, Wangfujing, the busy commercial street located just Northeast of Tiananmen Square, becomes a bustling, wild and wooly food market, populated by individual vendors selling everything from deep fried scorpions and sparrows on a stick to lamb kebabs. And that’s not to mention cicadas, grasshoppers, stinky tofu, quail’s eggs and strawberry kebabs.

Comment: The story is titled, “Beijing after dark: Five things to do at night in China’s capital.” It begins, “Open any guidebook and you can pretty quickly find the main tourist sites in China’s capital city. But dig a little deeper, and you can find plenty of experiences that will make your visit truly memorable.”

Thanks Buddha that NBC is here to “dig a little deeper” and let us know that, in addition to eating scorpions on a stick, visitors can also: get a massage, go to an acrobatic show, visit Houhai, and take a pedicab ride around The Forbidden City. Ha, you pesky guidebook writers, you just got owned (not really)!

* * *

Category: Wait, do GIANT scorpions on a stick count? (See photo here.)

Candidate: Chris O’Brien, Forbes

Clip:

A traditional Chinese medicine doctor will tell you that scorpions have a potent medicinal value, but in Beijing they are skewered on sticks at Donghuamen night market, deep-fried in oil and sprinkled with spice. They are mainly munched by giggling overseas tourists who, unlike long-term residents, don’t shy away from the $7 asking price. (From the photo caption)

A world away from fine dining, the daily Donghuamen night market in Wangfujing, Beijing’s premier shopping district, offers some unusual–at least for Westerners–eats, such as dog penises, silkworms and snake skins.

However, overseas tourists are often the most enthusiastic and adventurous when it comes to sampling these delicacies. One Chinese pensioner recoiled in horror at the sight of an American tourist biting off the head, and then tail, of a giant scorpion on a stick.

“That scares me,” she said, chewing on a rather plain-looking bing, a dry pancake.

Commentary: Um, exactly. Way to go O’Brien and wreck all my fun! An informative piece that covers some Beijing food background, a street food alternative to Wangfujing, and dishes ranging from the common kebab to fusion cuisine (example: bean curd and foie gras), with a few historical anecdotes thrown in. And it puts those scorpions into context, both in the clip above and at the end of the article:

* * *

Category: I like mine with jam?

Candidate: Matt Forney, Wall Street Journal

Clip:

In Beijing, where my family lives, I once returned home from a restaurant with a doggy bag full of deep-fried scorpions. The next morning, I poured them instead of imported raisin bran into my 11-year-old son’s cereal bowl. I wanted to freak him out. The scorpions were black and an inch long, with dagger tails.

“Scorpions!” shrieked my son, Roy. “Awesome!”

Comment: OK, these are scorpions in a bowl, not on a stick, so they fall outside the jurisdiction of this media monitoring project, but I found this a creative non-night market, non-stick related way of talking about scorpions. Nice. I bet Forney poured fermented mare’s milk on to those scorpions, but he didn’t want to gross us out.

* * *

Category: America, your next Mark Twain (very poor man’s version)

Candidate: Dave Hyde, Florida Sun-Sentinel

I must confess: I ate a spot of Spot. And I feel awful about it. No, really. I physically feel awful, though the problem might not stem from that teensy-tiny bite. Nor was it probably from the stir-fry pig liver (tastes like chicken), roast young pigeon (tastes like chicken) or fried scorpion (tastes like scorpion). It’s because I accidentally swallowed the leash! Ha ha ha ha, sigh.

* * *

Category: Duh, we’re not in Kansas any more

Candidate: Jennifer Floyd Engel, Kansas City Star

Clip:

Or maybe a place [like Beijing] where donkey and fried scorpions are considered lunch actually is just that exotic.

[Read this one if you are a fan of reporters who sound like wide-eyed tourists that did zero research before coming to China.]

* * *

Category: Big Macs and Coke? That’s a crappy, rather than a picky, eater

Candidate: Alex Cabrero, NBC News

Clip:

Friends who know my taste in food (or lack of taste in food, depending on your point of view) started sending me e-mails of dog brain soup. Deep fried starfish. Snake. Crispy scorpions. Beetles on a stick. Every e-mail ended with Good Luck! I’m serious, every single one. I’m not just exaggerating about the emails like I am about the food in Beijing. OK, OK, I admit a few of them didn’t say “Good Luck”, they said “Good Riddance.” But only a few!

[The story title: “Picky eaters won’t starve in Beijing – Forget the dog brain soup; I’m going to Mickey D’s”.]

* * *

Category: The Michael Phelps of scorpion references

Candidate: Geoffrey Wansell, Daily Mail

Clip:

[1] Laid out in trays and boiling in cauldrons are everything from goat lungs with red peppers to scorpion brochettes, seahorses on skewers, iguana tails, dung beetles and silk worms on a stick, by way of fried sparrows, grilled snake and turkey vulture schnitzels.

[2] One U.S. visitor, Jackie Siegel, could not resist starfish fried in shark oil, though the centipedes, worms and scorpions on offer ‘kind of bothered me a little’.

[3] So the visitor must put their ideas of good taste on hold for the duration of their visit and try a freshly fried and seasoned skewer of farmed scorpions, one of the most famous of the delicacies on offer, which costs about 50 yuan (£3.70).

[4] Scorpions are said to make your blood hotter in cold weather and to cure ‘certain conditions’, although no one seems sure what grasshoppers on a stick are a remedy for, or mixed cow and horse soup, come to that.

[5] While living in China, Dunlop ate rabbit heads, pig brains, scorpion and preserved duck eggs – known as 1,000-year- old eggs – whose oozy black yolks and ‘noxious aroma’ caused her flesh to crawl, made her feel sick and left a toxic black slime on her chopsticks.

* * *

Category: The Michael Phelps of scorpion references II, but with a point

Candidate: Dave Barry, Miami Herald

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 scorpionsThey feed their scorpions to TV reporters. I would not be surprised to learn that the Chinese word for scorpion is “TV reporter food.”

* * *

[Finally, I gave out my Olympic medals for Scorpions on a Stick coverage.]

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 who will tell the follow-up stories? About the impending unemployment among vendors when the reporters are gone. About rising housing prices due to so much lumber having been used for sticks. About the despondency of scorpions 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 ones.

GOLD

Dave BarryMiami 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….

“Then the truth hit me: The Chinese don’t eat scorpionsThey feed their scorpions to TV reporters. I would not be surprised to learn that the Chinese word for scorpion is “TV reporter food.””

Barry misses a perfect 10 because he limited his observations to TV reporters. Trust me, Dave, print media are just as fascinated by scorpions.

SILVER

Dan SteinbergWashington 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.

BRONZE (Tie)

Iain MarlowThe Toronto Star

Chris O’BrienForbes

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

[Thanks to ET for making this image of *the* Scorpions on a stick. Think I’ll go listen to one of their albums now…]


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