A Shanghainese Sailor’s Stories: monkey brains, dead bodies, and stowaways.

One of my clients has her chauffeur, Tom, drive me back from Pudong. Shanghai is a huge city. Getting from one side to the other can take over an hour even without traffic.  Naturally, Tom and I talk. He makes it easy.  Travelling is a natural topic because most people enjoy travelling, but Tom has stories to tell. He has probably been to slightly cooler, slightly grittier places than you’ve been – he was a sailor before he decided to settle down for his daughter.

During out last drive home, our conversation fell upon the consumption of exotic meats. Tom has had the classics – frog, dog, snake. He told me that snake has three ways of being eaten: roasted meat, fried skin, and raw organs. I couldn’t catch which organ he was talking about, but it had something to do with a snake’s digestive system. He said it tasted rank but according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was good for cooling down the body’s “heat.” Lovely.

Tom has also had anteater and some kind of badger or mole. And…

monkey brains.

Back when he was still sailing, Tom and his crew docked in Nigeria. While there, Tom made the acquaintance of a Chinese restaurant owner – they were 同乡, both from Shanghai. This Chinese restaurant served 广东 specialties from the southeast of China.

For this particular meal, the 老板 brought out a monkey and immobilized him to a wooden plank. He took a hammer to bash a hole in the top of the monkey’s skull. Next, he turned the screeching monkey upside down –

“Wait. The monkey was still alive?”*

“Oh yes. Very much alive.”

– and let some of the brains, which have the consistency of soft tofu, drip into cups of 白酒, a distilled alcohol. But he would only let a certain amount drip out! Because once the servings were made, the owner would right the monkey and untie him. The brains and skull would grow back over the next two months for the next set of lucky patrons.

I sat in the car, gaping, trying not to judge.

“You didn’t feel like that monkey was very unfortunate?”

“Well… in retrospect, yes. But not at the time. At the time… it was a good meal.”

In response to what was in my opinion a horrific story, I asked Tom what he’d seen that had shocked or disgusted him the most.

While in Nigeria, Tom witnessed an accident. There had been two passengers riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi, and a train hurtling along at top speed. Something collided into something and the two passengers were vaulted off. The motorcycle chauffeur was vaulted off as well. His arms, however, were stuck to the train. There was blood everywhere.

This was not the part that sickened Tom.

After some time, a policeman showed up. Tom noted he was wielding an AK47 – they all wielded AK47s. The policeman ordered the body to be dragged to the side of the road and announced that if no family showed up to claim the body by tomorrow, then the body would be taken to the garbage heap. This was what Tom found horrifying.

“A messy country. All of them. Their governments are all over the place.”

His crew was stuck in Nigeria for four months due to government bureaucracy and technical difficulties, but eventually everything was sorted out and they set out for South America. In the middle of the Atlantic, they found two Nigerian stowaways in their steam room. The stowaways said they ran away because they were poor, and that they would go wherever the crew went. Although they really wanted to go to the USA.

But the crew couldn’t take these two as deckhands. International laws. When they landed in Argentina, Customs took stock of the situation and told the crew that they’d been abusing their stowaways because they’d been staying in rooms without A/C and been given Chinese food to eat. The stowaways were put into new rooms with A/C and given Western food. One day, one of the stowaways stripped down, saying he was going for a shower. Instead he ran onto land, shouting, “Argentina, here I come!”

Customs was extremely displeased and had the men placed back to their original rooms. When the customs officer came to revisit them, the stowaways threw their bedpans at the officer, who became so angry he beat them brutally. He sent the crew off with the stowaways.

In Brazil, a similar situation occurred where Customs found the stowaways in a terrible state, except this time, a story of a Chinese crew beating Nigerian stowaways blew up in the news. The Chinese crew, with their poor English, had a hard time communicating what had actually happened until the Argentinian government contacted the Brazilian government with their story. The Brazilian government sent the stowaways back to Nigeria.

Tom’s life has been so full of adventure, but he looks just like any other Chinese man. He told me these stories the last time we’d see each other. They were biased stories told by an unreliable narrator, just as all real stories are. But I wanted to hear more.


*Conversations are recorded from memory and translated from Chinese.


One response to “A Shanghainese Sailor’s Stories: monkey brains, dead bodies, and stowaways.

  1. I’ve heard about monkey brains, but I didn’t know how abominably cruel the process can actually be. That they let the monkey live, only to beat its brains out every two months, is absolutely horrifying…

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