Long Cheng livestock market slays your meal in front of you

St. Paul slaughterhouse lets you watch as your dinner is butchered

In an industrial corner of South St. Paul, not far from the famous, now-shuttered stockyards, the Long Cheng Hmong livestock and meat-processing market sits between a semi-truck repair shop and a wooden-pallet maker that coats the parking lot with a fine layer of sawdust. Long Cheng makes its presence known with its ripe, barnyard stench. In warm weather the smell travels several blocks, so that outside Valentino's nightclub eau de manure commingles with testosterone and cologne—another animal scent, of sorts. Inside the market, the odor isn't as acrid as chicken scat or as putrid as a canine belch. Still, it takes some getting used to.

In the market's central corridor, customers—mostly Hmong, but also African, Latino, and Russian immigrants—loiter and wait for their purchases, languages blending into background music. A few meat buyers stand in the doorway between the waiting and butchering areas, speaking to an older Hmong man draped in a bright-yellow rubber apron. An unconscious pig hangs from a hoist by its hooves, and after a bit of gesturing, the man in the apron leaves his post and quickly returns with an empty glass casserole dish. Its function becomes apparent when the butcher slits the pig's throat and a deep crimson wave gushes into the dish, fast as vomit, frothing at the surface. When the dish is full, the man pours the thick red liquid into a plastic bag and hands it to the men. And you thought Gran Torino was bloody.

AT THE BACK OF LONG CHENG'S waiting area, a handwritten sign next to a small window reads, "stomach cleaning service needs to be paid here at office." One morning this winter, I was invited behind the Plexiglas into the cramped quarters overseen by Ko Vang, Long Cheng's office manager, who agreed to answer my questions. Vang wore a gray sweatshirt and a bright-pink hat and scarf set that stood out among the piles of papers and office equipment. Someone had scrawled the phone number for a nearby Burger King on a yellow Post-It note and stuck it to the wall.

Guaranteed fresh: Long Cheng co-owner Pao T. Yang with a doomed black chicken
Fred Petters
Guaranteed fresh: Long Cheng co-owner Pao T. Yang with a doomed black chicken


134 Hardman Ave. N., South St. Paul

Long Cheng, Vang explained, is owned by Pao C. Yang and his nephew, Pao T. Yang, and was started about 20 years ago to meet the demand for fresh, bulk meats that coincided with the Hmong immigration to St. Paul. While most Americans have severed their ties to food production over the last few generations, many Hmong immigrants have kept them close. In Southeast Asia, the Hmong have long been a rural, agrarian people who lived in remote, mountainous areas where animal husbandry and slaughter were part of daily life. To Hmong immigrants unfamiliar with urban culture, buying chicken at an American supermarket would be more foreign than killing the birds themselves.

Custom slaughterhouses like Long Cheng make up a small, somewhat libertarian branch of the meatpacking industry. Meat sold commercially in supermarkets or restaurants must be inspected by either federal or state Department of Agriculture employees who act as representatives for the consumer. But if an individual buys a live animal at a custom slaughterhouse (or brings his own animal) and pays someone to slaughter it (or slaughters it himself), the individual can take responsibility for the butchering process. While commercial slaughterhouses are subject to continuous inspection, their custom brethren are checked periodically to ensure they're following Humane Slaughter Act guidelines and proper sanitation procedures. As the owner of a live animal, the individual is categorized similar to a farmer, who has the right to kill and eat his livestock without government intervention.

Long Cheng employs about 15 to 20 people and is one of the few custom slaughterhouses in the Twin Cities (others include Long Cheng's neighbor, Concord Fresh Meat Processing, and Jeffries Chicken Farm in Inver Grove Heights). According to Vang, the Yangs buy mammals from a broker who operates in Zumbrota and Iowa. The chickens—Hmong prefer black chickens, finding their meat the most tender, she says—come from Amish growers in Iowa and Wisconsin. Vang estimates Long Cheng sells several thousand birds a week.

Vang's family of five—plus one on the way—is smaller than that of most Hmong, she says. "Hmong can have 10 to 12 kids per family." Having arrived in the United States as a baby, Vang says she's largely Americanized, as are her children ("They like to eat microwave stuff, or McDonald's hamburgers"), so she tends to buy meat at the supermarket. But for many Hmong immigrants, buying whole animals is a customary and affordable way to feed a large family. (Prices vary from 75 cents to $1.25 per pound, live weight, depending on the size and type of animal). "A pig will last maybe three weeks," Vang says.

According to Hmong tradition, animals are often sacrificed for significant events, such as welcoming a new baby or honoring the deceased. If a loved one passes away, a Hmong family might buy, say, 5 to 15 cows, Vang notes. Hmong funerals can last several days, so the ritual of cow sacrifice also has a practical purpose, as hundreds, even thousands of mourners may need to be fed. The cows cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to upward of a thousand—a large cow could weigh half a ton. Some of Long Cheng's customers, Vang says, are still in the habit of bartering as they did in their home countries. "Lots of people know Pao, and they come in and say, 'I want a $20 discount,'" she says. "And I want to say, 'Do you people know what business is?'"

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