At Shanghai’s Wanshang Flower and Bird Market on a sweaty afternoon in July, around 25 middle-aged men cram into a small, cigarette smoke-filled room at the back of the market. All are transfixed by two crickets fighting on a shabby brown Formica-topped table in the centre of the room. The crickets square up, bare their fangs and bump heads. The crowd tenses; the men move in closer. Seconds later, one of the crickets turns away and the fight is over.
Scenes like this are a relatively new phenomenon in summer: cricket fighting in China has traditionally been restricted to the autumn months, after the inch-long blackish-brown insects are plucked from fields at the end of the summer. But for the last few years the extended season has been fuelled by breeders who raise crickets all year round by strictly controlling the insects’ temperature, humidity and feed.
Wu Mingjie, the president of the Golden Autumn Cricket Lovers Club, says that human-bred crickets are likely to wipe out naturally-raised crickets in two to three years time. Although this means the cricket fighting season is getting longer, fewer people are now involved with the sport. ‘Cricket fighting was the game for every boy in the ’70s and ’80s,’ he says. ‘But now it’s becoming a dying pastime.’
The Shanghai-born 36 year-old is an architect by day and cricket fanatic by night. His club was founded in 2005 and has 80 members, who meet every two weeks to talk about crickets, hold fights (with no betting) and receive lectures from cricket masters (past winners of national cricket fighting competitions). But for most members of the Golden Autumn Cricket Lovers Club, the gathering and raising of crickets is just as important as the fighting itself.
Wu himself is a good example. Unlike most cricket fighters, he looks after his crickets until they die, even when they lose a fight (crickets never fight again once they’ve lost, and are often discarded by their owners). He names each of his 50 crickets according to how it looks: one is called Datou (big head), and another Dajiao (big feet). He cleans each cricket every two days, which involves putting the insects into small nets before dipping them in a basin filled with water.‘Cleaning them one by one takes a lot of time,’ he says. ‘That’s why I only keep 50 [crickets]. Any more and I would have to quit my day job.’
But Wu’s club is now one of only ten cricket clubs in Shanghai. ‘Today, young people have more ways to entertain themselves,’ he says. ‘And most of the people involved in cricket fighting do it to make money rather than because of their passion for crickets,’ he says. ‘Gambling
has always been associated with cricket fighting. But now, as the season gets longer, there is more gambling and more money to be made from the sport.’ Wu says this money culture makes it harder to stage fights, as the government is ‘70 per cent against cricket fighting, and 30 per cent for it.’
This hasn’t stopped cricket breeders from getting involved. Red Bull Baichong in Baoshan district, Shanghai, opened in 2008 and is, according to its owner, already China’s biggest cricket farm. Here, there is a constant supply of 100,000 crickets in the summer months and 40,000 in the winter. Farm owner Xu Moxiao, 30, says he plans to double the size of the farm in the next two years.
Inside his 30- by 20-metre greenhouse, baby crickets spend one month in polystyrene boxes filled with soil. Then they spend another month in boxes filled with bark and more substantial food, before finally being transferred to an outdoor setting for another month before being sold. For these three months the temperature is strictly maintained at 32C.
Xu’s insects are popular. Every day they are sold in bulk to animal and bird markets across China, including Beijing, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai and Wuxi. ‘Many people prefer natural crickets for emotional reasons,’ he says while proudly showing us around his farm. ‘Man-bred crickets used to have looser skin, more fat and less muscle. But the difference is now so small that I find it impossible to tell the difference. From the age of five, I used to visit animal and pet markets with my father in Hongkou district. But now I raise crickets to make money,’ he says.
Small-scale entrepreneurs are breeding quickly, too. Chen Shanshan became interested in crickets six years ago, when he started to organise cricket fighting competitions in Yangpu district. But the small events he staged at home for friends quickly turned into something much bigger.
‘I had to find private hotel rooms where we wouldn’t be interrupted,’ says Chen, as he shows us around the two Shanghai apartments where he lives and raises 10,000 crickets. ‘It’s illegal to gamble in China, but lots of people like to bet on cricket fights. I stopped organising fights because it was too much hassle, too risky and I didn’t want to get arrested,’ he says.
Both of Chen’s apartments are littered with cricket breeding paraphernalia: thermometers are attached to foam insulated walls; polystyrene boxes for transporting insects to pet markets are stacked from floor to ceiling; 20kg sacks of rice to make cricket food are strewn on the floor; a television rests upon the same blue plastic crates that house the newborn insects.
‘It’s not so much what they eat. It’s more the temperature and the conditions that you keep them in,’ says Chen, disappearing into his kitchen to make tea and returning with a saucepan of blue-grey sludge. ‘This is what we feed them. It’s made from a mixture of rice and ground-up wheat.’
Chen says he started breeding crickets two years ago for the purpose of making money. He visited Hunan, Hubei and Shangdong to collect ‘China’s best’ naturally-raised crickets to take home and breed. Today most of his crickets are sold to individual buyers – each cricket sells for anything up to 200RMB, while a rare breed can fetch 3,000RMB. ‘People pay huge sums of money for the best crickets,’ he says. ‘If a cricket wins a fight you can resell it for more money. But they become worthless the moment they lose.’
But Chen says more money is involved in arranging cricket fighting competitions, where organisers can take up to half of the takings. ‘Thankfully things as a breeder are much more stable. I can’t go to jail for this,’ he says, before admitting that he is still tempted to make a ‘little betnow and then’. John Sunyer
Please note that this feature originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Time Out Shanghai