Lunar New Year is Prime Time for Flushing Live Poultry Markets

Dozens of cages containing more than 500 chickens at Flushing Live Poultry were empty around 11 a.m. Thursday morning, three hours after the doors opened and two days before the Lunar New Year.

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Rob, a 52-year-old third-generation Chinese-American chicken farmer and slaughterhouse market owner, stood near the front door to greet Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking regulars coming in from the rain, breaking the bad news: “We’re sold out, but come back tomorrow .”

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In the days leading up to the big holiday season — one of the most important occasions celebrated by the Chinese community around the world, including this northeast part of Queens — Rob, who declined to give the CITY his last name, sells twice as many chickens raised on his farm in Pennsylvania as it usually does.

A sign in traditional Chinese characters reads “already sold out” at a live poultry business in Flushing during the Lunar New Year, Jan. 19, 2023.

There are about 80 of these live bird markets in New York, according to a 2021 study, and many of them get chickens that come from Rob’s farm to his family’s processing plant in Sunset Park, Kum Fung Wong Chicken Market.

“In Chinese New Year, I’ll say 60% of Flushing depends on me,” Rob said, noting that his family delivers chickens to many other stores.

He also noted that Chinese customers are not only buying chickens for their feasts, but also for their altars.

Buddha’s followers offer a whole chicken, often a rooster, laid down on the altar, along with burning incense, tangerines and oranges. The Buddha eats first, then the family.

“I know it’s more based on religion, it’s luck – that’s my understanding, my grandmother told me,” Rob said. “My grandmother was a Buddhist — she passed away.” She used to do that. My father still does.”

“I’ll prefer live chickens”

The city’s remaining brick-and-mortar slaughterhouses are themselves something of an endangered species, as a 2012 state law — extended in 2020 for another four years — prohibits the state Department of Agriculture and Markets from issuing new permits to “establishments that house animals or poultry were slaughtered” within 1,500 feet of a New York apartment building. Several animal rights organizations, citing recent bird flu outbreaks, renewed their call for the immediate closure of all remaining stores in a letter sent in November to the department’s commissioner.

But disappointed customers turned away from Flushing Live Poultry — and now waiting outside P&M Live Poultry next door for their chickens to be slaughtered — said they would be sad to see these neighborhood staples close. These institutions are, after all, common in “wet markets” in their hometowns abroad.

“Supermarket chickens are not that tasty – the meat just has a weird texture,” Gong Lin, 55, who traveled from Corona to pick up chicken for dinner, told THE CITI in Cantonese. “Of course I’ll prefer live chickens if I have the option.”

A live poultry dealer in Flushing displayed chickens for sale ahead of the Lunar New Year, January 19, 2023.

Lin plans to prepare her chicken in a simple, popular way – steamed to preserve the fresh flavor, then dipped in soy sauce and maybe even ginger and scallion oil just before consumption.

Others in line have different agendas, often ones that suit their provincial cuisines.

Ms Yan, a Fujian immigrant in her 70s who declined to give her name, has red poultry – the fattier, juicier breed – at the butcher shop. She has frequented the two stores since moving to the area more than a decade ago, she said, and is debating whether to bake, braise or stir-fry chicken with rehydrated dried mushrooms for New Year’s.

Closing the doors to these places could spoil the feathers, she said in Mandarin, adding that, culturally, many Chinese immigrants prefer to see their chickens being prepared from pen to pot — a sign of freshness and intent.

“Maybe they just don’t want to see live animals killed,” Ms Yan said of the moratorium and calls for a ban. “But here’s the thing: Don’t we also have chickens that we can eat in stores?” And those chickens are killed. So what exactly is the difference?”

China in Cuba until Corona

Standing behind a window listing in Chinese at least 11 types of chickens plus other poultry, such as duck and stock, Rob told GRAD that the white meat wrapped in shrink wrap at big box stores is usually factory-slaughtered, with white feathers from a conventional Kuroiler hen that has been take about five weeks to grow.

“Our chickens take 10, 11 weeks to grow,” Rob said of his livestock — which he claimed are free-range and handled with care. “It’s a slower-growing bird, and actually, the slower it grows, the tastier it is.”

The window menu at Flushing Poultry showcases a variety of chickens and offerings, January 19, 2023.

By contrast, factory farms – which operate on a much larger scale – can produce millions of chickens a week, far from the eyes of everyday shoppers, he added.

“I think people misunderstand what they think is cruel.” Asians, Hispanics, Muslims — ethnic cultures don’t think it’s cruel. It is part of our food chain. It is part of what we eat. That’s nature. It’s part of the process,” Rob told THE CITI.

Just a few years ago, he took over the storefront from the Russian Jewish merchants that his family supplied poultry to, but Rob is no novice in the business.

He slaughtered his first chicken at age eight, he said — just a few years after visiting his first wholesale chicken supplier in Long Island City. Killing was a rite of passage in his family, as he had been doing the job for three generations. His grandfather turned to raising chickens after running a Cuban-Chinese restaurant in Corona in the 1970s. He first arrived in the neighborhood after a decade of living in Cuba after emigrating from China.

“Let me ask you something,” Rob posed. “You take a plant out of the ground, and just because it doesn’t scream doesn’t mean you don’t kill it, right?”

Sold out

Behind him, two white Muscovy ducks—the only breed left in the sold store—were delivered to the slaughterhouse in a supermarket shopping cart, where they were sealed under a makeshift cover. Only a few minutes earlier, they had been pulled out of their two-meter cage, and now they were headed for their fate behind the plastic curtain.

First a slit in the neck for a quick kill and quick bleeding, then into the pore-opening hot water. Next up: A turn at plucking the feathers before it hits the butcher board, where it’s cleaned inside and out and finally packaged for the customer.

“It wasn’t something everyone wanted to do.” It’s not an easy job. It’s hard, it takes a lot of work,” said Rob about the origins of his family business. “You’re not in Trump Towers, you know?”

Animal rights activists have come and gone and come to protest the store over the years, he said, first trying to break in through the front door and then the back.

Shortly after he remembered that, a kind and familiar face appeared just above a small puddle faintly colored red.

“Hey boss! Do you still have supplies?” The older gentleman asked in Mandarin.

“We are more or less sold out.” Only the Muscovy ducks are left,” replied Rob. “Not today – we’ll have more tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? See how much effort I put in to get here,” the disappointed customer jokingly replied, an umbrella in one hand and a shopping cart in the other. His short black puffer jacket was covered in rain.

“Sorry – my apologies,” said Rob. “But tomorrow!”


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