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Lunar New Year is Prime Time for Flushing’s Live Poultry Markets

The city’s live bird markets and slaughterhouses are, well, playing chicken with animal rights organizations pushing to permanently ban new operations here.

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Customers wait for their chicken to be slaughtered at a Flushing live-poultry seller ahead of Lunar New Year, Jan. 19, 2023.

Haidee Chu/THE CITY

The dozens of cages that had held more than 500 chickens at Flushing Live Poultry on Thursday morning were empty by around 11 o’clock, three hours after the doors opened and two days before Lunar New Year’s Eve. 

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

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 in this Northeast part of Queens — Rob, who declined to give THE CITY his last name, sells twice as many of the chickens raised on his farm in Pennsylvania as he usually does. 

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

Haidee Chu/THE CITY

New York City is home to about 80 of these live bird markets, according to a 2021 study, with many of them getting 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 supplies chickens to many other stores.

He also noted that Chinese customers don’t just buy chickens for their feasts but for their altars as well. 

Followers of the Buddha present a plated whole chicken, often a rooster, to the altar along with burnt incense, tangerines and oranges. Buddha eats first, then the family.

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

‘I’m Going To Prefer Live Chickens’

The city’s remaining brick-and-mortar slaughterhouses are themselves something of an endangered species, because a 2012 state lawextended in 2020 for another four years — prohibits the state Department of Agriculture and Markets from issuing new licenses to “establishments where animals or fowls are slaughtered” within 1,500 feet of a New York City residential building. Several animal rights organizations, citing recent outbreaks of the avian flu, renewed their call for immediate closure of all the 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’d be sad to see these neighborhood staples shuttered. These institutions are, after all, commonplace in “wet markets” in their hometowns abroad.

“Chickens from supermarkets aren’t as tasty — the meat just has a weird texture,” 55-year-old Gong Lin, who traveled from Corona to pick up a chicken for dinner, told THE CITY in Cantonese. “Of course I’m going to prefer live chickens if I have the option.”

A Flushing live-poultry seller displayed chickens for sale ahead of Lunar New Year, Jan. 19, 2023.

Haidee Chu/THE CITY

Lin plans to prepare his chicken in a simple, popular way — steamed plainly to preserve its fresh flavor, then dipped in soy sauce and maybe even a ginger-scallion oil just as it’s consumed. 

Others in line have different plans, often ones that correspond to their provincial cuisines.

Ms. Yan, a Fujianese immigrant in her 70s who declined to give her first name, has a red fowl — a fattier, more succulent breed — up on the butcher board. She has been visiting the two stores since she moved to the area more than a decade ago, she said, and is debating whether to roast, stew or stir-fry the chicken with rehydrated dried mushrooms for the New Year.

Closing the doors to these places might ruffle some feathers, she said in Mandarin, adding that, culturally, many Chinese immigrants prefer to see how their chickens are prepared from pen to pot — a sign of freshness and intention. 

“Perhaps they just don’t want to see live animals killed,” Ms. Yan said of the moratorium and the calls for a ban. “But here’s the thing: Don’t we also have chickens that we can eat in grocery stores? Those chickens get killed too. So what’s really the difference?”

China to Cuba to Corona

Standing behind a window that lists in Chinese at least 11 kinds of chicken plus other poultry, like duck and squab, Rob told THE CITY that the white meat shrink-wrapped in big-box grocery stores tend to be factory-slaughtered, white-feathered conventional Kuroiler chickens that take about five weeks to grow.

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

A window menu at Flushing Poultry showcases its variety of chickens and offerings, Jan. 19, 2023.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By contrast, factory farms — which operate on a much bigger scale — can produce millions of chickens a week, far from the view of the everyday shopper, he added.

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

He took over the storefront just a few years ago from Russian Jewish shopkeepers whom his family used to supply with poultry, but Rob is not a newbie to the business.

He slaughtered his first chicken at eight years old, he said — just a few years after he visited his first-ever chicken wholesale supplier in Long Island City. The killing was a rite of passage in his family, as they have been in the business for three generations. His grandfather turned to chicken farming after running a Cuban-Chinese restaurant in Corona in the 1970s. He first arrived in the neighborhood following a decade living in Cuba after emigrating from China. 

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

Sold Out

Behind him, two white Muscovy ducks — the only remaining breed in the sold-out store — were getting delivered over to the slaughter room in a supermarket shopping cart, where they were enclosed under a makeshift cover. They had been picked out of the cage by their two feet just minutes earlier, and were now heading toward their fate behind the plastic curtain.

First a slit on the neck for a fast kill and a quick bleed-out, then into the scalding hot water that opens up the pores. Next: A spin in the feather plucker before hitting the butcher board, where it’s cleaned and gutted and finally bagged for a customer.

“It wasn’t something everyone wants to do. It’s not an easy business. It’s hard, it’s a lot of labor involved,” Rob said of 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 barge in through the front door then the back.

Shortly after he recalled that, a friendly and familiar face appeared just across a small puddle faintly stained red. 

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

“We’re more or less sold out. Just the Muscovy ducks left,” Rob replied. “Not today — we’ll have more tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Look at how much effort I put in coming here,” the disappointed customer responded jokingly — an umbrella in one hand and a shopping trolley on the other. His short black puffer was covered in rain.

“Excuse me — my apologies,” Rob said. “But tomorrow!”

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