A performer passes a snake through his nose and mouth during a show at a fair as part of lunar new year festivities at the Temple of Earth park in Beijing on February 11, 2013.
AFP Photo/Ed Jones

by Ed Jones

We had just crossed the threshold of Chinese New Year, and I was determined – this being the Year of the Snake – to takes some pictures of a serpent-swallowing street performer. It’s a trick I had seen several times before at temple fairs in Beijing and elsewhere. I put the word out, and a colleague gave me a call when he spotted what I was looking for. 

When I arrived at the Temple of Earth Park the festivities were already underway. Just getting close enough to the stage to shoot was a challenge because the place was chock-a-block with New Year revelers. I’ve learned that the best technique for navigating a densely-packed crowd in China is to merge with the masses and go with the flow. Eventually, you get there.

The show lasted around 15 minutes, and included a two-headed girl (not real), a Shaolin kung-fu master (probably not real), and a man who was very good at balancing some things on the ends of other things (impressively real).  And then there was the snake-swallower. I watched the show twice. 

The second time, the snake man coaxed the serpent up into his nose per usual but – and this was a bit scary – could not get the creature to exit via his mouth. This caused him to gag and vomit numerous times (the man, not the snake). When those beady-eyes finally appeared, the man grasped head and tail, pulling the snake back-&-forth in a tug-of-war motion. The audience squirmed more than the snake. Then the man removed the animal and took a hasty bow before what struck me as an under-appreciative audience.