Fighting grasshopper

all photos courtesy of Michael Bush

Ah, Grasshopper…Cricket!

| published December 6, 2015 |

By Michael Bush, Thursday Review writer


Cities in China are replete with markets and bazaars, and Shanghai is definitely no exception. Cast a stone, and chances are it will fall within inches of some type of market selling flowers, fake purses, fresh produce, butchered meat, street food stalls, knickknacks, etc. Often times, when I found myself bored (this was before the second child, so I still had “free time”) I would research strange museums or odd markets in Shanghai, and go exploring to find them.

On one such day, in the company of some fellow stay-at-home-dads, I ventured to the Wan Shang Bird and Insect Market (万商花鸟市场). I had heard it was quite a strange and unusual experience, and, to be honest, I myself am strange and unusual, so to the market I went.

Nearing the place, you could smell a certain odor…a kind of animal musk. It wasn't a terrible smell; just a wafting aroma that let you know in advance there was wildlife nearby. The entrance was difficult to locate right away, but with the assistance of our olfactory senses, we zeroed in on the right spot. It was at this moment I realized that they sell more than just birds and insects.

Upon entering we found ourselves greeted by…plants! Flowers and other potted flora adorned the walkway, perhaps in an attempt to keep the musky smell of what lay beyond at bay. Who really knows? Well, we moved forward, careful to not tread upon the myriad loose garbage on the floor. If you recall, the ground in China can be filthy, and even more so in a market full of critters and creepy crawlies. Pet stores

At first we saw tanks of goldfish, bowls filled with turtles, and the like. Nothing too unusual, pretty much run of the mill fare that can be bought at PetSmart back home. Then I came upon a bowl of pure nightmare fuel…for me at least. I’ll admit it: I've never been a big fan of frogs.

Ok, fine. I hate frogs. Albino frogs

But these little demons were small, white, slimy, and I'm pretty sure full of evil and wanted to kill me. But hey, that's just one big strong man's opinion. Anyway, the albino frogs were from hell and should go back from whence they came toot sweet.

Shuddering with revulsion, I moved on to find myself bewildered and confused as I gazed into the next cage to see…a squirrel. That's right, a regular little brown squirrel. Two more held each other ever so gently in the next cage as if to say, "Why are we here? This is not normal." I mean, I've never even seen a squirrel in China, so maybe they just caught them somewhere else and thought they'd make cute pets. I can imagine the scene: a small Chinese boy opening the cage holding his new pet for the first time, and receiving a lightning-fast ball of fur right to the face, and carnage ensues, eventually ending with the family killing and eating the small rodent just like we do back in Alabama.

Then I continue walking to the next set of cages and realize that maybe they have confused the squirrel for something else. I enter a room full of chinchillas in cages, ready for adoption. Chinchillas. What the hell, Bird and Insect Market? I've been here fifteen minutes and have seen plants, rodents in cages, some goldfish, turtles, and white devil frogs. Where's them bugs and birds, y'all?


But soon, the sound from ahead tells me that I'm close to seeing the aforementioned birds. Their birdsong fills the air in a confusing cacophony of chaos. The smell of birds and bird droppings hangs thick in the air. We are near the goal at this point. I spot the first cage containing that which we seek. It's a sad little bird that wants to be free, as do all birds I imagine.

Rounding the corner, we then hit the jackpot in the bird department. Cages lined the walls, hung from the rafters, and sat upon the floor. The birds sang and tweeted their sad chorus, "Get us the heck out of here, it stinks.” (I may have imagined that part) The strange part is how the local men just kind of hung out, watching the birds and listening to them. I did some reading up on the subject afterwards because I was curious, and it turns out keeping birds as a pet in China goes back hundreds of years. A lot of elderly Chinese people often own birds to keep busy after retirement, even taking them for walks.



Yes, they take their pet birds on walks. Chinese people will carry the cage on a short stick and swing it gently back and forth so that the bird gets exercise by holding on to their perch. Not only do they go for walks, but the owners also go see other people with birds so that their pets can socialize. It's a fascinating part of life in China, hearing songbirds in the park and seeing someone strolling along merrily while holding a birdcage.

Now you may think seeing a bunch of old dudes sipping tea, chain smoking harsh Chinese cigarettes, and staring at hundreds of birds was the weirdest part of my visit to the market. You would be mistaken. I noticed ahead of me a bright light, and a group of men loudly discussing something in rapid-fire Mandarin.

Intrigued, I rushed forward to try to eavesdrop; you know, practice my practical Mandarin by listening carefully. When I saw what was on offer at this stall, and what had these men so worked up, I couldn't believe it. I had heard of China's love of cricket song before; the chirping is said to be beautiful and the Chinese have a history of keeping crickets as pets going back about 3000 years. But more recently, about 1000 years ago that is, they began to train the crickets to fight.

It's not kung fu, karate, boxing, jiu-jitsu, or anything like that. It's actually quite boring to watch, honestly. The crickets rush at each other, swatting like middle school kids who have no idea how to properly throw a punch, and then one will retreat. That cricket loses. The sport itself is not illegal in China; however, the rampant gambling that often accompanies these matches is very illegal. I was surprised by how damn big these bugs were. A couple of them got loose while I was walking around trying to ask questions. Generally, bugs don't gross me out. Heck…I even eat ‘em! (See my previous food article, Bugging Out: The Value of Eating Creepy Things; Thursday Review.) But I was wary around these dudes, as they looked like alien warriors ready to invade and destroy Planet Michael.

The amount of care and time many cricket owners invest is insane to me, as the bugs usually only live around 100 days. But you can shop in this market for cricket cages that look like tiny birdcages, beds, baths, and all other little luxury items for your grody gladiator.

cricket cages
cricket cages

As we left and walked back the way we had come in, I saw this market in a new light. Bird and Insect Market was a good name for it after all. Yes, they had lots of other types of things for sale near the front, some of which was quite shocking and off-putting, but that was all a gauntlet for you to fight your way through. You have to be tested in order to prove your worth to the crickets. Only those with the perseverance and solid fortitude to make it all the way through that nonsense before finally reaching what they actually came to see can earn the right to bend the knee to our new overlords: The Fighting Crickets of China.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Bugging Out: The Value of Trying Creepy Things; Michael Bush; Thursday Review; November 21, 2015.

The Giant: Gaining Weight in China; Losing Weight in China; Michael Bush; Thursday Review; October 17, 2015.