Day isn’t quite the holiday it used to be. For many years, the 1st May was the start of the second of the annual
“Golden Weeks” – public holidays lasting a full seven days. The other two seven-day holidays –
Chinese New Year (in January or February depending on the phase of the moon) and the October holiday (from the 1st to the
7th October – to honour the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on the 1st October 1949)
are still on the calendar. But the “May Day week” has been relegated to a three day holiday (the other days
have been used to mark more traditional festivals).
But May Day is still an important holiday – in northern China particularly, where the winter seems to go on for an age. For many in this part of the country, May Day signifies
the proper arrival of spring; and the attendant feel good factor is palpable.
The beaches of Beidaihe – “Beijing’s
seaside resort" – were thronged with long-weekenders. The many fishing ponds around the town were packed with fisherman to the extent that it was
difficult for many to swing their rods. The
Olympic Park (the town’s biggest park) was buzzing; as was the Lotus Hills (the mountain park on the western edge of
town). Everyone – locals and visiting
Beijingers alike – was determined to make the most of the day.
As well as beach volleyball, rollerblading, football, table tennis, beachcombing, swimming,
and tennis, I encountered another “sport” that belongs to quite a different league: the league of cruel sports.
It was 5.15 am.
I saw a car stop at the end of the track. From it emerged a man carrying two bird cages, each
containing a single Chinese Grosbeak – whose soulful song, he hoped, would lure migrant birds into the trap he was carrying. I watched, unseen, from inside of the wood through binoculars
as he set up his long “mist” net (so-called because the thread that makes up the net is so fine that birds can’t
Rather than intervening
straight away, I decided to wait for him to finish his work. Twenty minutes later, with his trap set, he walked the 80 metres or so back to his car to wait for the first unsuspecting
migrant to become tangled in the net. This
was not someone catching birds to eat or to sell for a few yuan to feed his hungry family; this was a man intent on enjoying
a morning’s sport.
Having waited long enough,
I thought is was time for his net to bulge – but not in the way he was hoping for.
I walked to the far side of the wood, so the net was closer to me than to him; and then
I walked quickly up to the poles that supported the net and tore them out of the ground, before ripping the net to shreds
in front of him.
He was not amused to say the least. Not
only was he hurling abuse, he was running towards me with fists clenched. I then took several shots – of the photographic kind of course – while returning a volley
of abuse at him.
“If you come any
closer,” I shouted, “I’m going to hit you”. This literally stopped him in his tracks. He looked at me, covering his face as he did so. I took some more shots. Any thought of assaulting a foreigner – particularly one that
would have seemed to him to be seriously unhinged – was dismissed and, instead of running at me, he ran to retrieve
his caged birds, before marching with them across the field away from me.
As he was retreating, I reminded him of the illegality of what he was doing (interspersed
with some “street Chinese” of my own) and, just to rub the salt in as it were, also told him that the police would
be calling on him later that day (thanks to my relationship with some influential people in Beidaihe who care passionately
about the wildlife here).
I had wrongly thought
that things had moved on in my local town. The
last evidence I had seen of this reprehensible activity was more than five years before. 15 years ago, it used to be widespread. But since then, even would-be bird catchers could not have failed to notice that Beidaihe is visited, every May, by scores
of foreign birdwatchers who come here to witness one of the great migration spectacles in Asia – the mass movement of
birds towards their Siberian breeding grounds.
The local government has embraced the concept that the area is on the world map of important
ornithological sites, and its tourist brochure dials up this as well as its green credentials. So netting wild birds in Beidaihe and the surrounding area is not just illegal (as it technically is all over the country)
it could also be politically damaging.
Hence my surprise, and indignation, when I spotted this bird catcher on the edge of the Nandaihe
“Magic Wood”. I’ve visited
this fast-shrinking coastal wood in 14 of the last 15 Mays, and over the years I have found some incredible birds there
(hence my naming it “Magic”); and in all of that time today's encounter was the first time I have seen a bird-catcher.
Let’s hope he
tells his bird-catching friends what awaits them if they dare go down to the woods today.