Visiting a cockroach farm in China's Chengdu

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China is seeing a new kind of migration: Graduates leaving cities to set up businesses in their rural home towns. It’s part of a larger effort to boost village life.
Childhood friends Mr Qian Cheng (left) and Mr Zheng Tianhang in their cockroach farm in a small village about two hours' drive outside Sichuan province’s capital Chengdu. ST PHOTO: ESTHER TEO
Mr Qian Cheng (left) and Mr Zheng Tianhang with the dead cockroaches that they sell. ST PHOTO: ESTHER TEO

CHENGDU, Sichuan - Cockroaches might be hardy creatures known to be able to survive a nuclear explosion but farming 400,000 of them is a different matter.

The myth that these bugs might inherit the Earth in the event of a full-blown nuclear war first surfaced after they were found to be among the only survivors in the razed Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the United States dropped atomic bombs in 1945, closing the chapter to World War II.

But I learnt on a recent visit to a cockroach farm in a small village about two hours outside Sichuan province's capital Chengdu that while these 300 million-year-old insects might have survived mass extinction, they can be a lot pickier than you think.

Not only must they be fed once daily in a dimly lit room but the temperature must also be kept at a toasty and constant 30 deg C for them to thrive.

In fact, that was how childhood friends and cockroach farmers Qian Cheng, 24, and Zheng Tianhang, 23, first convinced me to step into a 30 sq m room filled with egg cartons to provide the hiding places the roaches prefer.

Already apprehensive about the visit after a colleague (mercilessly) showed me a YouTube video of another cockroach farm in Shandong province where hundreds of full-sized roaches scuttled across the floor, the knot in the pit of my stomach tightened further after I realised in horror that I had worn sandals in my rush to get ready in the morning.

"Don't worry," Mr Qian said. "Your body temperature is too warm, they won't even come close to you. They are more afraid of you than you are of them," he insisted, after I had pointed out my footwear crisis.

And he was right. As I stepped timidly into the room, careful not to squish any that I imagined would be scurrying across the floor, cockroaches big and small darted back to their hiding places, choosing to hide in the shadowy dark corners of the room and away from any loud noise.

When it was quiet, however, the unmistakable sound of their spiny little legs scratching against cardboard could be heard and a twinge of ammonia hung in the air.

While I spotted dozens of roaches as I gazed between the narrow corridors and hives made from egg cartons and cement roof shingles, it was far from the nightmarish scenario that I had envisioned.

For some reason, it was less frightening to see many of them, all minding their own business, than having a standoff with a single startled cockroach in a kitchen. The latter, in my experience, would more often than not sense my fear with its twitchy feelers and make a beeline straight for me.

As I got used to my surroundings, I started walking more confidently around the room in an attempt to find more of them clustered together for the pictures and videos my story needed, peppering Mr Qian with requests to take photos of them.

So much so that he decided to lure more of the larger cockroaches out for me with one of their favourite treats: potatoes. (Potatoes are only second to their love for food that has gone slightly bad.)

"Their diet consists of mainly corn paste but they love potatoes and will come out almost immediately after we put them out," Mr Qian said as he cut up chunks and put them at the entrance of the hives.

In a matter of minutes, as if on cue, cockroaches of all sizes crawled out and climbed all over the potato, greedily feasting on it.

I had never known how cockroaches ate previously, but observing them now, I could see the tiny bite marks left behind on the pale yellow flesh as the insects devoured the food.

Mr Qian also showed me the "nursery" where little cockroach nymphs about the size of a grain of rice were kept. They had just hatched from the eggs that he had bought from a fellow cockroach breeder.

I learnt that cockroach eggs can also be bought on Taobao, China's version of eBay, although Mr Qian cautioned that their quality cannot be guaranteed.

In about six months, they will grow to about the size of a thumb where the roaches - a breed called Periplaneta americana, or the American cockroach - will then be harvested, boiled and dried for use in traditional Chinese medicine for a wide range of ailments.

While there are hundreds of species of cockroaches, the American one is thought to have the highest medicinal value, Mr Qian said.

As my visit to the farm ended, I ventured to ask both men how they overcame their fear of cockroaches and whether watching thousands of them scurry about still made their skin crawl.

"It can be quite unsettling to handle them in such huge numbers at first but after taking care of them for almost a year, we've gotten used to it and are not afraid anymore," Mr Qian said.

If my experience is anything to go by, I guess anyone can get used to them as well.

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