Cut, Kill, and Carry

Daily fare on the killing floor
Craig Bares

Hidden behind a four-story warehouse in South St. Paul is an outpost of unremarkable buildings that house Long Cheng Hmong Livestock & Meat Processing. The largest is a yellow metal shed. Near the entrance hangs a hand-lettered sign: "Warning: No kill or service after 5:00 p.m." On this drizzly Tuesday morning, deep puddles have formed throughout the uneven parking lot. Inside the shed, a dozen or so people stand watching two men in white hardhats, work clothes, and rubber boots butcher pigs for Long Cheng, a family-owned slaughterhouse that sits at ground zero in a dispute over the future of the small city's meatpacking tradition.

Before the mighty Swift and Armour plants closed (in 1969 and 1979, respectively), thousands of workers wielded knives and slaughtered livestock here. At its peak, during World War II, the Swift factory employed more than 5,000 people. Unlike its relatives from earlier this century, though, Long Cheng, whose owners are Hmong, doesn't deliver its products to the supermarket. Its customers show up at the plant, choose a live animal--usually a pig, chicken, or cow--and watch employees kill, cut, and package the meat for on-the-spot carryout.

Want a chicken? Head over to the round, concrete structure next door and grab a metal pole with a tiny hook on the end. On the building's second floor, three stooped women are roaming a pen filled with some five dozen clucking birds. Two of the women wear scarves over their mouths--dust and feathers fill the room--as they attempt to snare the leg of a feisty fowl. Just outside the pen waits another customer, an elderly man clutching a straw-handled grocery bag. Suddenly, the plaintive squawk of a bagged bird--his order--startles the air.

Back in the shed, Eric Lee, a young man sporting bell-bottom jeans and a black stocking cap, offers a quick, and typical, explanation of what brings customers all the way out here for orders. He and his wife, Lee says, regularly make the long drive from Minneapolis. "It's fresher," he says of the meat. "At the grocery store, you don't know how long it's been there. It loses its taste. They prepare it really good for us."

Lee arrived early, picked out a 141-pound pig (priced at a live weight of 68 cents per pound) and now stands just 15 feet away from where several swine are hanging upside down, dead or dying, their blood slowly dripping onto the concrete floor. Workers hack at carcasses with loud electric saws and hand-held knives. Every few minutes, a noisy, V-shaped machine flips one of the lifeless bodies around to remove the hair. Lee, still a bit stunned even after several visits, offers, "It looks kind of gross now, but afterwards it pays off."

On Saturdays and Sundays, when families seeking meat for traditional Hmong celebrations descend on Long Cheng, the delay in delivery can be two hours or more, even though it takes only 20 minutes to slaughter a pig. That delay is one reason that Long Cheng's owner, Pao C. Yang, who immigrated from Laos in the late 1970s, wants to expand. He bought an adjacent brick warehouse for that purpose, paying approximately $225,000 in late 1997. "We could make the line faster if we had a little bigger facility," Yang reasons.

But a series of recent city hall actions have thrown his plans into limbo. In February, and again in mid-May, the South St. Paul city council voted to impose a 90-day construction moratorium on Yang and other neighborhood businesses, including Concord Meat Processing, a slaughterhouse that also caters mainly to Hmong immigrants.

City officials say they need time to decide what's to become of this cluster of buildings that lie between Hardman and Concord avenues, along a mostly barren stretch of industrial land not far from the Mississippi River. Since 1988, the Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA), the city's development wing, has been buying riverfront land once owned by Swift and Armour, demolishing any remaining buildings, and selling the property to new entrepreneurs.

Along the riverfront, says Bill Lucking, executive director of the nonprofit developer Progress Plus, which works with the HRA, "there was a lot of blight"--in large part the deteriorating hulls left vacant by the giant meat-packers. "It sat there and was rotting. We had to clear the area and make it look better." But many of the corporate heads Progress Plus and city officials were courting still had the perception that South St. Paul, and especially the tract of land in question, was a "smelly old cow town," Lucking says. He disagreed, and to prove his point invited prospects to sightsee the strip with him. "I tell people, 'Come on down here. I'll give you a tour, take you out to lunch, and change your mind.' And that's what's happened."

The demolish-and-rebuild strategy has enjoyed a fair amount of success. Just south of Long Cheng, the city's riverfront has lately acquired the generic look of many a suburban industrial park: Direct-mail retailer Sportsman's Guide, American Bottling, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, a light-fixture manufacturer, and a veterinarian cooperative have all put down stakes recently, in a complex of brick-and-glass office buildings. (Possible expansion by Sportsman's Guide--now the city's largest employer--threatens a pair of brick gates that once stood outside the Armour plant. An advisory panel is exploring the feasibility of moving the historic gates to another location, at an estimated cost of $70,000.)

The council is reviewing three HRA proposals, all of which could prompt the same sort of new construction on the land surrounding Long Cheng. The least expensive option, at $280,000, would allow the slaughterhouses to remain, but would include funds to tear down a pair of nearby storage tanks officials consider eyesores. Under the most ambitious design, the HRA would spend $4.3 million to purchase, demolish, and relocate Long Cheng and its fellow meat-packers in order to make way for newcomers.

"While this strategy is the most costly," notes an HRA report, of the latter option, "it holds the greatest potential for image enhancement." In accordance with the plan, city boosters hope to attract a developer for a proposed five-story, 100,000-square-foot office building; with that possibility in mind, council members have suggested that Yang enter into discussions about moving his operation to the South St. Paul stockyards, located about a mile to the south--at an estimated cost of $50,000, not including the purchase price for replacement property.

Just last year the Castle Hotel, a refurbished inn and restaurant, opened across the way. This is the former Stock Exchange Building, where "Stockyard Kings made their fortunes spiking prices of cattle," notes a hotel brochure. The HRA sold the building for $1 to the current owners and loaned another $400,000 to help with the $3.1 million transformation. Now weekend thrill seekers can rent the "Duke's Chambers" for $139 a night. Inside Room 301, one can peek through the white lace curtain, and see Long Cheng across the street (Castle Hotel employees tend to go heavy on the lemon-peel room freshener).

If anything, the view makes clear that Long Cheng is quickly becoming the odd business out--something owner Pao Yang didn't expect when he set up shop back in 1989, on what was then a largely deserted, even forsaken, span of industrial land. But time, and competition among small metro-area towns for businesses with high tax tabs and the promise of jobs, has caught up with him--leaving Long Cheng and other small meat-packers at odds with the city's late-Nineties vision.

"There are a whole host of issues to be resolved in the area," says South St. Paul mayor Kathleen Gaylord. "The moratorium is an opportunity for the council and the HRA to talk this through. It's not a moratorium against these particular businesses." That's little consolation to Yang, whose expansion hopes remain on hold until at least August. "I don't mean to hurt the city's feelings, but right now I can't do anything," he says--except to accept the standstill and settle, for now, for business as usual.

Inside Long Cheng, manager Ge Yang, Pao Yang's 28-year-old nephew, plops down in a plastic chair near the killing floor. With a cell phone strapped to his belt and a Denver Broncos cap set backward over his head, the second-generation Hmong American believes he may be able to see the city's political machinations with a touch more savvy than his elders, and the future of the slaughterhouse with a bit less doubt. "I think they're stalling," Ge Yang offers coolly. "I get the idea they want to get rid of everything."

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