Hong Kong (Reuters) - When a king cobra lunges at Chau Ka-ling as the door to its wooden cage falls open in her busy Hong Kong restaurant, she just laughs, then pulls it gently into her arms.
For Chau is a “snake king,” one of scores in Hong Kong who have through generations tamed snakes to make soup out of them, a traditional cuisine believed to be good for the health.
Yet the people behind providing fresh snakes for the savory meal thought to speed up the body’s blood flow and keep it strong in the cold winter months may be doomed, with young people increasingly reluctant to take on a job they see as hard and dirty.
“He is my boss, he supports my living,” said Chau of the snake she cradled at Shia Wong Hip, a popular shop that serves over 1,000 bowls of hot snake soup on the busiest winter days.
Trained by her father in childhood to handle snakes, Chau, now in her early 50s, took over the business he founded, serving up a small bowl of soup for $35 Hong Kong dollars ($4.50).
From boiling the essence out of snake, chicken and pig bones, to spicing it up with an array of ingredients that include five types of snake meat, the traditional southern Chinese snack can take more than six hours to make.
Yet as the cold deepens in the weeks leading up to the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Snake it ushers in on February 10, Hong Kong locals huddle inside small street shops like hers.
The thick soup is flavored with hints of lemongrass, while the snake itself tastes like chicken but is tougher.
“Snake soup can help you stay healthy, and when the weather is cold it helps keep you from catching the flu,” said customer Stephen Lau.
While soup stalls remain popular, scattered across the former British colony, retail snake shops have diminished to a slithery few, such as the 110-year-old She Wong Lam.
Inside, more than 100 snakes lie quietly in wooden cupboards labeled “poisonous snakes” as the clicks of an abacus echo through the dimly lit shop.
Shop owner Mak Tai-kong, 84, has been working there for 64 years. He sells an average of 100 snakes a week to restaurants and snake soup shops that could otherwise buy pre-butchered meat, but prefer the freshness he offers.
Over the decades, he has trained about 20 people to become snake handlers - and said he has a few tried and true tips to help people put aside their fear of the venomous creatures, including starting them out on snakes whose fangs have been pulled and thus are no longer dangerous.
“Then, after he has been bitten a couple times by a snake that is no longer poisonous, he will think, ‘Oh, this is not painful, this is nothing, this is like being bitten by an ant,'” Mak said.
“Then he will no longer be scared, and as he works more he will get more used to it.”
But new blood is hard to find. The youngest employee in the shop has now been there more than 30 years.
“There won’t be many. Firstly, it’s crummy and dirty, and snakes smell,” Mak said. “Secondly, the wages aren’t high. So not many people enter the field.”
Mak feels his job is less about making money and more about providing a service to society by keeping a tradition alive.
Yet even fellow “snake king” Chau says she has no successors trained, and in fact has refused to do so.
“I’ve killed snakes for so many year, but actually I don’t want to. Because there are fewer and fewer snakes now,” she said. “But I can’t make a career change. There’s nothing else I can do.”
Reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by Elaine Lies and Paul Casciato