Many people who visit Beijing take special pleasure in doing a thing they often do, but on the Great Wall. Shotgunning a beer on the Great Wall. Lighting a cigar on the Great Wall. Making a sandwich and then eating it on the Great Wall. I have personally seen a used condom on the Great Wall.
In May 2018, Rudy Guo decided to try something a little different. He hauled 10 dozen oysters up the 3,000-foot hills outside of Beijing and organized a 60-person shucking competition on the Great Wall.
Shucking is the act of opening an oyster and severing its meat from the shell so that it’s ready for someone to slurp. Competitive shucking is doing this action over and over again at a lightning-fast pace in the presence of timers and judges. The Great Wall Shuck Off was doing all of this, against people from 11 different countries, many of whom were jetlagged and had just flown to Asia for the first time in their lives, on the Great Wall.
Shuck offs are more common and better attended than you may think. Many in the sport’s small, die-hard community of restaurant-professionals-turned-fanatics travel internationally to compete every year. Oyster-shucking contests have existed informally since God knows when among the rocky coasts of fishing villages, but in recent years, they’ve become more international, more boozy, more likely to be sponsored by champagne labels or big hot sauce brands. And, as befits something undergoing international corporatization, the competitions are more likely to be in China.
Beijing is increasingly international, but parts of it are still just lawless enough that you can offload a horde of day-drinkers for a contest that heavily involves knives on a UNESCO World Heritage Site and no one will give a shit. This is what Guo did. He and his team packed crates full of fine, imported oysters—the kind with French names that you can sell for $10 a pop or include on a pricey tiered seafood platter—and hauled them up hundreds of stairs. And Guo did all of this just for the sake of putting on an exhibition contest. What the competitors were really in town for was the China Shuck Off World Cup, which was scheduled for the following day.
The scores from the Great Wall Shuck Off may not have counted for anything, but the day has lingered heavily in shucker lore ever since. Yes, competitive oyster shuckers have lore. They have a culture. And the next day, the Wall having been conquered, they brought this with them to the World Cup, where, amid flowing champagne and a bacchanalian disregard for oyster waste, the shucking champion would be crowned.
“On the count of three!” the emcee bellowed into the microphone. He stood on stage alongside four men, who hovered tensely over trays full of oysters, tiny knives in hand. “Three, two, one … SHUCK! SHUCK! SHUCK!”
The crowd hoisted their fists in the air and chanted, “SHUCK!” until they were out of breath, stopping to sip gin and tonics or IPAs or chardonnay. Then they’d return to full-throated shouting, as if they were at Bonnaroo for oyster nerds. The men on stage grimaced as they picked oysters like locks, twisting their wrists, sweating.
As heats and competitors shuffled on and off the stage, fans and contestants skulled beers and tipped their wine glasses to one other. A bearded man with a vaguely European accent flitted around the party, offering tequila shots off a plastic tray to the masses in novelty T-shirts. One group wore matching shirts that read “Get Shucked.” Others said “Shuck It Up!” One man’s shirt simply indicated that he was the fastest oyster shucker in Maine. The people gathered there that day were mostly restaurant and food professionals, who the emcee described as “the rockstars of the shellfish world.”
I had been quietly sipping champagne on the sidelines and sneaking selfies with a six-foot cardboard cutout of an oyster when one of the rockstars from Canada approached me. Because it was 2 p.m. and we were both drinking, he pointed to my glass and said, “Nice.” He raised his fist in a signal I recognized from parties back home. I responded instinctually. I curled my thumb around my forefingers. I pressed them to his. Our comradeship confirmed, we downed our drinks. A spectator would later tell me: “I never heard the phrase ‘oyster community’ before today, but now I’ve heard it a million times.” This was the moment I stepped inside that community.
The thing is, none of the people who competed in the World Cup that year are really the fastest shuckers in the world.
Shucking’s true, unsung speedsters are the middle-aged women who work at the massive oyster canneries that line the Yellow Sea. But they’ve never heard of the Shuck Off World Cup, Guo tells me, and if they had, their bosses wouldn’t let them come anyway. They’re busy producing 80 percent of the world’s farmed oysters.
Oysters come in two classes in China: There’s the everyman’s oyster, whose shells are grilled and topped with garlic chunks, more likely to be guzzled down with local beer than fine wine. They’re a barbecue meat, and China’s original fast food–Chinese people began selling them from carts, like hot dogs on Coney Island, as long ago as the Qing dynasty. These are the ones shucked by, as Guo puts it, “insanely fast lady shuckers.”
Then there’s the upper class of oysters: raw, on the half shell, imported. Ten years ago, Guo was a restaurateur in Shanghai who could hardly get anyone in China to care about this kind of oyster. Guo was born in Fujian, a southern coastal province, where the local oysters are fried up in omelets and dunked in broths. But he came of age in Toronto, where yuppies slurp them on the half shell, and where he says his buddy’s restaurant invented the “buck-a-shuck,” the original dollar-oyster happy hour. Guo noticed Chinese customers loved the deal. They’d “come in, order 100 oysters and two warm waters, and eat and go,” he said. He moved back to China to launch its first-ever Western-style oyster bar.
When he arrived in Shanghai, mainland China’s most Western, international city, there was only one company importing one variety of oysters from the U.S. If you wanted another kind, you had to smuggle it across the Hong Kong border. Not that anyone wanted them. An oyster filters 50 gallons of water each day, and here Guo was telling people in the world’s most polluted country to eat them raw.
He began hosting promotions and small festivals to “spread oyster culture,” and things started to change. And as he promoted raw oysters, Shanghai got richer. As Shanghai got richer, its upper-class diners were starting to look down on any food produced in their own country, and suddenly importers started bringing more oyster species to Shanghai. Meanwhile, back in Canada, a weird sport was kicking off.
Oyster shucking as sport began in 1954 with the first Galway International Oyster Festival in Ireland, but as the competition grew to include more people from around the world, shuckers complained that the use of local oysters put non-Irish competitors at a disadvantage. So alternative shucking competitions began sprouting up elsewhere, and the Canadians ended up running with it.
By the 2010s, shuck offs in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal were drawing thousands of spectators. Daniel Notkin, a friend of Guo’s, was drawing between 4,000 to 6,000 spectators to his annual Montreal Shuck Off. Guo saw an opportunity to ratchet up the enthusiasm for his own festivals by tapping into the Canadian market. In 2015, his restaurant group flew in a few Canadian shucking champions to compete in China, and by 2018 Guo was organizing China’s first World Cup.
The sport found patronage in the luxury hotels mushrooming across the country. I first met Guo when a hotel PR person introduced him as “Rudy the Oyster Legend” at a press event for me and my fellow local magazine editors, mostly expats who drink too much. I can sum up Beijing’s past few decades by telling you that the hotel where this happened was in a neighborhood that was once dominated by state-owned factories, but now is home to more free-flow brunch deals than smokestacks. It is easy, as a foreigner in China, to end up in circles far more luxurious than you have any business being in, and the visiting shuckers were no exception. To talk to those who’ve come to the China Shuck Off since its 2015 inception is to be dunked in a bath of hedonistic nostalgia. “Remember when we shucked at that banquet in Fujian?” one dude reminisced. “There was like a red carpet and shit.”
When not boozing together at shuck offs, Western shuckers gather on social media platforms that are banned in China, marking themselves in their usernames, which include: @theoystergirl, @theoysterlady, @the.art.of.the.shuck, @twogirlsoneshuck, @justforshucks, @awweshucks, @shuckbrothers. There is even a resident troll, @shuckinhell, who posts photos of poorly shucked oysters to the community’s rapturous delight. (Bio: “Naming and shaming restaurants who don’t give a shit about oysters. Shuck Oysters like a shitbird to get featured on our page.”)
In the west, working in the restaurant industry can be an identity. This is particularly true in Montreal, famous for bacchanalian feasts like those at Joe Beef; even the New Yorker has weighed in on the city’s hard-partying restaurant culture. A shucker from Montreal quoted a female friend who once told him: “You know you’re getting older when you’re not doing cocaine off your oyster knife anymore.”
But in China, working in a restaurant is just a job. There is a far clearer divide between those enjoying the spoils of the country’s economic boom and those holding it all together, and nowhere is this more evident than in a high-end restaurant. The ultra-wealthy are multiplying, and so are the slang terms that categorize them: tuhao, nouveau riche; fu’erdai, second-generation rich; guan’erdai, those wealthy from their government connections. Bosses at these wealthy playgrounds—China has less of a bar-hopping or club-going culture, and so the rich often party over meals—are exacting and the hours are long. Partying is for customers, never staff.
Even Li remembers the first time he shucked an oyster, because it was his first day on the job at Shanghai restaurant called The Plump Oyster: February 26, 2016. It was also his first time eating an oyster—he, like all of us, thought it tasted weird at first. Unlike all of us, he was begging three months later to be allowed to enter a regional shuck off.
No one thought he was good enough to enter that year. And he shouldn’t have been. But when he told me his story, Li reminded me of something Guo had once said to me: “You can be a very gifted shucker. Sometimes you just naturally have the touch, the twist, like a gifted athlete. Some people are just born to be amazing athletes.” Li came to shucking with the raw, innate talent of a legend. He sidled his way into the 2016 contest after one of the contestants dropped out at the last minute, and then he won the whole damn thing.
I’d heard of Li before I met him, while standing around at a regional shuck off in Beijing, where the Canadian champs who’d flown in referred to him as “this one guy in Shanghai” with hushed reverence. Li has now traveled to Ireland to compete at the Galway International Oyster Festival twice, though he doesn’t fare as well there as he does at home. The native oysters there are challenging, a kind he doesn’t have access to in China, where he practices on flat Belons. He arrived in Ireland jealous of the other contestants who’d had a chance to practice, and the many contestants who’d been participating for years. The word Li uses for “practice” can also be translated as “study.”
“It was Plump Oyster that sent me,” he told me. “I’m not making enough to cover the expenses of going to Ireland.”
Top shuckers travel for free across the world to compete, their expenses either paid by the restaurants they work for or the competitions themselves. Guo’s restaurant group pays for the global champions to come to China every year to honor his original mission of “spreading oyster culture.” But many more are willing to pay their own way; as many as 20 contestants at the 2018 Shuck Off paid to enter the contest and put themselves up in luxury hotels. At a regional shuck off in Beijing, I met Ricky Chong, a shucker from Singapore, who pays out of pocket every year to fly to Galway. This is how he spends his money; he works hard all year shucking in a restaurant so he can shuck more oysters on his vacations.
Guo says the lack of funding keeps Chinese players out of the sport. His restaurant group won’t pay for Chinese competitors that aren’t working in its own restaurants, and convincing other bosses to send their top shuckers on trips to compete is a losing game. Li’s family supports him how they can—though they never eat oysters around their own dinner tables, they’ll come by and watch him compete in Shanghai when they’re free.
Matt Dean Pettit was emceeing in front of the 2019 China Shuck Off’s 500-person crowd, suffusing the whole event with a kindly bro energy, periodically shouting “GOOOO RAPTOOOORS” into the microphone. (It was the NBA playoffs; he’d woken up at 5 a.m. China time to watch the Raptors play.) Pettit is a cookbook author and entrepreneur who blew up after his Toronto lobster roll truck went viral. He is currently trying to make freezer food cool again by marketing his hip line of microwaveable lobster bowls that feature millennial-friendly ingredients like kale and craft beer, and also hosts an Instagram show about bars with patios in Toronto. You could call him a seafood influencer. “We have a couple rules here at Shuck Off,” he boomed. “First, we need you guys to have a cold drink in your hands at all times.”
This is not a big ask. 2019 Shanghai is a thirsty city. Its nightlife scene is a boozy reflection of China’s own boom, with trendier and trendier bars opening every minute, all trying to out-cocktail one another. People in Shanghai drink like the bars are all about to be shut down despite this. The thirsty people of Shanghai arrived in the early afternoon and began drinking immediately, supplied by cocktail tents, a prosecco stall, and craft beer taps.
We were standing on a wide lawn in Shanghai’s former French Concession next to a restaurant where conspicuously dressed-down people in designer hoodies gathered for “casual” brunches of bone-in steak and lobster linguine. The event was flanked by a little United Nations of oyster stalls, each marked by origin. Each stall had a plastic spray bottle of whisky, and attendees were welcome to spritz it onto their oysters or into their mouths.
The favorite that day was Notkin, Canada’s 2016 shucking champ and de facto ambassador for oyster culture. Notkin speaks about shucking with a self-conscious humor that quickly fades to reveal his hot-blooded love for the game. He told me about “the season, you know, the pro tour season,” laughing wryly before rattling off competitions, and, later, admitting he owns a map of shucking competitions around the world: Ottawa, Rodney’s in Toronto, the Prince Edward Island Canadians, the Montreal Oyster Fest, the PEI Shellfish Festival, something he calls “Denver, in March,” China Shuck Off, the Wellfleet Oyster Fest, and, “well, a whole bunch in British Columbia.” Now, of course, there is China.
Notkin has been shucking for years—when I first reached out to him, he sent me a link to a low-budget documentary on Montreal’s shucking culture in which he stars. The film is about 10 years old and in it, he wears a shirt that says “iShuck.” Shucking is a family sport for Notkin: he started shucking because of his sister, who got into it after the bar she worked at had a policy against women shucking oysters. She became the Ottawa shucking champion out of spite and then told her brother to compete.
Notkin is a pillar of the oyster community, and moved about the festival shaking hands with people he’d seen in previous shuck offs. Pettit refused to introduce him onstage as anything other than “handsome Dan.” Meanwhile, Even Li was systematically demolishing his competition.
Many were too busy partying to notice the day’s first event, the South China Regionals. But a small, dedicated mob crowded around the stage to watch a poker-faced Li shuck with unbelievable speed. The little mob cheered when he finished first, but the oysters still had to be judged. Off to the side, two judges were meticulously poking at shucked oysters, prodding them with pens and hunting for bits of shell debris. Judges were working through paper rubrics for each one. Results wouldn’t be finalized until much later.
It wasn’t a surprise when Pettit announced, 40 minutes later, that Li had won. “Oh good,” said a U.S. oyster company rep as Li was crowned regional winner. “I put money on that guy.”
This qualified Li for the China Shuck Off, to be held in one hour, featuring various international champs who had flown in.
It appeared that, just one year after the first World Cup, shucking had gone mainstream.
The presence of hundreds of civilian attendees diluted the booze-addled passion of the bivalve geeks, who were spread thin across the festival, doing things like helpfully explaining at-home shucking techniques to spectators. By the time China Shuck Off began, the sun had gone down and the audience was mostly wasted.
Li was tense as he faced off against Jaret Arias, Chong, and Notkin for the title. Pettit took his time setting up the audience for the final show: “Who will it be, this year’s champion?” he bellowed, sounding a bit like a movie trailer voiceover. “Three, two, one … SHUCK!”
Spectators strained to watch as the men shucked, the minutiae of their moves obscured by their smallness and their speed, the dusky light making it even harder to see. Notkin finished first, pumping his fists in the air, followed a second later by Li, offering a more relaxed smile. Notkin’s finish didn’t guarantee a win, of course—their trays were quickly brought over the judge, who was now holding a small light to inspect each oyster. Arias and Chong finished third and fourth. Then they were free to mill about and grab drinks while waiting for their scores to be announced.
When the results were in, Pettit tried his hardest to gather the attention of the rambunctious crowd, stalling for suspense like a Bachelor contestant about to announce his final rose. “WHO WILL IT BE?” Pause. “Ladies and gentlemen, the China Shuck Off 2019.” Pause. He gave the third and fourth place wins to Chong and Arias. “And the winner is… DANIEL NOTKIN!”
Li and Notkin good-naturedly shook hands before Notkin let loose a fist pump so powerful it rocked his entire body. Then he was handed champagne bottle. He sabered it, and the suds fell all around him.
Do not assume, just because there is champagne and whiskey and maybe, sometimes, drugs, that these shuckers aren’t also thinking long and hard, and often poetically, about their métier. There is a long, noble tradition of glorifying the oyster: M.F.K. Fischer elevated what was, in her day, a basic bar food in her book-length hallmark of food writing Consider the Oyster, and used it as a conduit for otherwise unpublishable queer themes in her memoir, The Gastronomical Me.
Oysters also command respect among the environmentally concerned, as they are a rare meat that is beneficial to the environment to eat. (Their ability to save the environment is reduced when you’re flying jets full of them to Beijing every day). There are vegans who eat oysters. There are artists who find symbolism in an oyster’s marbled, knotted shell. Also, oysters make pearls.
Many shuckers waxed poetically to me about the camaraderie within the shucking world: how shuckers aren’t just competitors, they’re friends; how they’re not just friends, they’re family. But to really get to this level, to become the national champion of Spain or Singapore or wherever, you need to have more skin in the game than that. You can’t just be here to make friends. You need to be here because you’re pathologically obsessed with the physical act of opening an oyster.
Arias, Spain’s national shucking champion, couldn’t find the exact words, but he told me that opening oysters is bliss, and then blew with his lips pursed to make a sound like voooop. There are these crazy-smooth oysters from the South of France, he told me, which they serve at his bar in Spain, and their lids are so flat and even that all you need to do is stick the knife in, and in one quick motion they just, well, voooop. “When it opens just like…” he trailed off, miming and air-slicing with a wide smile. “Voooop.”
“When it comes off clean?” I suggested.
“When it comes off clean,” he said.
Notkin’s sister once told him her reason for shucking is simple: “I just want to see what’s inside.” More than once I heard people describe the act as “like picking a lock” and “like magic.”
Li still gets nervous sometimes. He is especially concerned about how he’ll do in Ireland, because he doesn’t get to practice with Irish oysters in Shanghai. The other shuckers all seem to have had more practice with them—and besides, many of them have attended the festival in Galway for decades. But some things are worth the anxiety.
“I’m a little nervous, but it’s great to be able to open an oyster,” he tells me. “I love any moment I’m opening an oyster.”