Man’s best friend ?

When we first arrived in China back in 2004, the keeping of pets was extremely rare.  There were cats in abundance in places like Hong Mei Lu food street but they were clearly feral.  Legions of scrawny undernourished cats would compete for scraps of food from the over nourished human diners.  The presence of the cats no doubt only tolerated by the cafe owners because they kept the number of rats down.

Similarly, any dogs to be seen were of the working variety.  In return for guarding premises they were tolerated and fed.  The odd westerner would keep a dog as a pet and the local Chinese were clearly baffled by this bizarre behaviour.  Why keep an animal that didn’t pay its way ?  Who would treat a dog as a friend ?  A source of meat yes but a source of affection ?  These westerners are weird !

As time went by however, Chinese attitudes to pets and dogs in particular changed markedly.  It became common to see women carrying  tiny little dogs in specially designed hand bags and it wasn’t long before Poodles, Papillons, Pomeranians, Huskies and Labradors were in vogue.

What precipitated the change is hard to say.  Some argue that as China modernises and the traditional family unit breaks down, more and more lonely Chinese look increasingly to the society of pets to fill the void.  The Chinese cities are filled with migrant workers.  100’s of miles from their home towns, lonely and homesick, an attentive dog doesn’t seem such a bad option to someone deeply missing their friends and family.

Pet ownership is seen by other commentators as a sign of embourgeoisement.  As disposable income grows, what better way to display one’s wealth than by the acquisition of the latest status symbol ?  The proud owner even has a ready made excuse for showing off their investment.  A dog must of course be walked !

I saw from first hand experience how this new Chinese craze for dogs could also cause great friction within Chinese families. With 25 million inhabitants, living space is at a premium and quite understandably, some family members were not keen to share their living space with what only a few years previously had been considered just another source of protein.

So it was with my P.A., Yanqiu (Yanchoo) who had treated herself to a Jack Russell.  Besotted with her new four legged friend, she talked about it endlessly.  One morning however she entered the office in quite a distressed state.

“What on earth is the matter Yanqui ?”

“It is my dog.  he has gone missing again !”

“Again ?”

“Yes.  It is all my mother’s fault.  She says the dog has run off but I know she has got rid of it.  She said it “ran away” 3 weeks ago but after searching for hours I discovered that she had given it away to one of our neighbours.  I think she must have given the dog away again but I don’t know to who ! ”

Now I’ve always had a bit of a sick sense of humour and knowing that Yanqiu’s fiance was from South Korea, I just couldn’t help pulling her leg, despite her obvious distress.

” Maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to blame your mother….  What about your boyfriend ?” I ventured

” What about my boyfriend ? ”

“Well he is Korean.  I know he loves his food…..Maybe he got a little hungry ?”  I said, desperately trying to keep a straight face.

A look of what I can only describe as utter contempt spread across Yanqiu’s face.

“Don’t be stupid !  It is February ! ”

“So…..”  I replied.  Completely confused now…

“Koreans only eat dog in Summer !”  She admonished…

Good old Yanqiu.  Her unpredictability never failing to completely outflank me.  She was completely unmoved by the idea that her fiance might eat the dog however my stupidity in thinking that he might eat the dog in February, now that she considered priceless !

You will be pleased to discover that she did eventually find her dog and yes her mother had tried to give it away again.  Unfortunately there wasn’t a happy ending though as a year or so later her dog died from poisoning.  Some weed killer had been administered to a nearby strip of garden that the dog was keen to play in.  After ingesting some of the weed killer I am afraid the dog died quite a painful death.  Yanqiu, understandably, was very, upset….

Anyway, I digress.  Dogs became more and more an integral part of everyday Shanghai life.  In our compound, Elegant Garden, it was impossible to take the kids down to the playground without coming across a variety of dogs.  Some friendly, some playful, some dangerous.

With the coming of the dogs, a new set of rules was required to maintain order and who better to codify such rules than our bureaucratic guardians at the  Management Office.   A girl in the Management office was confident in her English and when you have someone ‘in house’ with a mastery of the language then only a fool would splash out on a qualified translator.  The following ‘Notice’ was subsequently distributed ….

do you feed the dog

Though the piece clearly won’t win any literary prizes I do like the idea that dejection can be “cleaned up” !

Having been brought up in a family that kept cats, I have never considered myself to be a dog lover however the one time that I genuinely felt sorry for the dogs was at Chinese New Year.  For the uninitiated, CNY is like Guy Fawkes night meets ‘D Day’, with fireworks creating an unrelenting wall of noise for a good two  weeks.  This experience was pure hell for us humans but at least we knew the reasons behind the noise and that all this mayhem would eventually cease.  The poor dogs however must have feared that it was the end of the world.

I was somewhat consoled however by the consideration being shown to the dogs in the following ‘Notice’. The budding linguist in the Management Company was really starting to believe in her abilities now and the fruits are there for all to see;

align the orifice...

In a nation that saw dogs as a type of food only a few years before, I was heartened to see a genuine concern here for the welfare of the dog ; “please nurse good oneself dog, in order to avoid causes frightens”

As for the common sense advice with regard to firework safety, I can only say that this document has come to represent a sort of Bonfire Night bible to me.   Nowadays, each time I light a Catherine Wheel I pause to remember those wise words ;

“easy not to cause the fireworks injection orifice alignment the fire place to set off…”

Indeed, one cannot help but think how many of today’s problems might well have been avoided if people had just taken a little more care over “orifice alignment”….

Back to the subject of dogs, my own family weren’t immune to the new fad sweeping China.   Indeed, my kids had been plaguing me for some time.   “Why can’t we have a dog Dad ?”  …..” So and So’s got 2 dogs…”  …..”Oh please Dad, Please…”


As I’ve already said, I grew up in a family that kept cats and for me, getting a dog was a step in to the unknown, a step too far.  Maybe if I had been younger I could have adapted but not now, it was just too late in the day to change my ways.

The pro dog lobby pressure intensified however when a neighbour told my wife (in front of my kids !) that we could have one of her dogs.  She had 2 dogs and 4 kids and she said that it was just too much and consequently, she would be happy to give us her 2 year old Papastzu (half Papillon, half Shih Tzu).

“Please Dad, please…..Go on, we’ll feed it and take it for walks and everything…..”

I was unmoved.  “No way”, I said.  “Three children is more than enough.  No room for dogs….Sorry, but my word is final…”.   They looked disappointed but at least they appeared to accept defeat.

Yep, I’m a 1970’s Dad.  It’s my way or the highway.  Ok, it might cost me a little on the popularity front but I’m not their friend, I’m their Dad.  In any case, ego wise, it felt good to be in charge.  My word was the law and I had their respect.  The way it should be….

When I returned home from work the following evening however I was shocked to be greeted by a small dog as I opened the door in to the porch.  Humiliation welled up in side of me.  “What the hell….” I spluttered to my wife, Heather.

“It’s not what you think ….the dog’s only here on a sleepover…..”

” Are you taking the ……”

” No, the owner said that she’d leave the dog with us over night and if we didn’t want to keep it then she’d just take it back tomorrow.  So, we’ve sort of got it on approval I suppose….”

I was lost for words.  I looked down at the dog.  It dutifully looked up at me then stretched its front legs out as far as it could whilst bowing it’s head as low as it could.  It did this for about 10 seconds.  It was kow towing to me.  Bowing to me….  Tears welled up in my eyes.   So that was what it felt like.  I had waited 44 years but finally I was tasting respect.  What a wonderful feeling.

“Well, what do you think ?” said a worried looking Heather.

“The dog stays !” I said.  “Not sure about the kids.  The jury’s still out on them but the dog stays !”

My daughter Isabel christened the dog ‘Ziggy’.  I argued for a more traditional name like Lassie but was overruled on this. It was explained that her previous owner had called her ‘Piggy’ and so Isabel reasoned that the dog’s new name had to at least sound like ‘Piggy’ otherwise the dog wouldn’t respond to it.

Anyway, the rest is history.  Ziggy became and still is an integral part of the family, loved by us all.  Her greatest attribute in my eyes however is that, having the pack mentality, she is very hierarchical.  In short, unlike anyone else in our family, she acknowledges me as the leader of the pack and affords me the necessary respect.  We sometimes we go away on holiday leaving Ziggy in the care of a neighbour.  On our return she excitedly greets each family member in turn.  As pack leader, she always greets me first and in veneration, gives me the longest possible stretchy bow that she can muster.

As they say, “little things please little minds” and this small gesture alone does it for me !








3 thoughts on “Man’s best friend ?

  1. Hello! I found your blog while researching American families in China. If you receive this message, and are willing, I would so appreciate an opportunity to email with you and learn more about your experience! Exspecially researching the best schools. Thank you so much! – Anna


      1. Hello! How were you able to obtain a Visa for your children? I will be moving abroad to teach English and am not sure what steps to take to assure that my daughter is taken care of. Additionally, how did you begin the search for schools?
        Thank you!


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