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The big fish wasn't going without a fight. Three strikes and it still wasn't out. The fishmonger continued to smack it across the head with a rough wooden baton, which he kept for this purpose. By the door another shopper attempts to put a snapping crab into a bag with some tongs. Opposite, in The Never Ending Quail Shop, a brown paper bag jumps up and down on the counter while a housewife searches for her purse. Behind the counter crates of condemned birds fidget and snooze.

This is Chinatown market in San Francisco and the focus of a modern dilemma that has placed the Chinese community at loggerheads with the urban warriors of animal welfare. Last week the city's newly formed Live Animals for Food Consumption committee finished taking evidence and searching for precedents to help it find solutions to the Chinatown debate. Its decision is due tomorrow. Theoretically that's when it'll decide whether or not Chinese merchants have the right to trade in live food. In the meantime it's trying to walk a democratic tight-rope between respecting other cultures and respecting other life forms.

Spearheaded by Patricia Briggs, a zoo cashier, the Chinatown debate began 19 months ago and has touched everyone from chefs, to the hippies of Haight to animal rights philosophers. Carl Freedman, one of the latter, says it's San Francisco's image as a haven for beleaguered minorities that is responsible for such heightened sensitivities. What next, refugee status for turtles? Asylum for eels? Down in the Lun Sang fishmonger at Stockton and Broadway, Mrs Kung the owner says she has never heard such a load of old codswallop in her life. As a main supplier to many of the local restaurants, the new rules threaten to put her out of business. "It's a 5,000-year-old tradition," she says. ''Why don't they take on the fish farms and chicken factories instead? The fish are going to die anyway. Unless you are going to eat them alive." She looks at the crowded tanks of fish. " But let's not get them on to that," I hear her mutter.

The Chinese logic in selling live fish is simple. You know how long it has been dead. The rest of the city's non-partisan population just want to do the right thing. The big question exercising the residents of Russian Hill and Pacific Heights is: is it still OK to eat sushi? Regarded as the perfect food by the semi-veg inhabitants of SF sushi is even bigger here than in New York. But suddenly ordering the execution of so much marine life at lunchtime puts fretting over line-caught tuna into perspective.

Patricia Briggs has worse news for them. Next stop for her campaign are the chic fish restaurants of Fisherman's Wharf where she plans to put an end to the practice of boiling lobster and crab alive. Says Ms Briggs: "The time of crustaceans is coming." They didn't name this city after St Francis for nothing.