Strolling Wan Chai’s markets
Right in the centre of Hong Kong Island’s north shore, Wan Chai may be better known as the setting for the film and novel ‘The World of Suzie Wong’, its raucous nightlife a legacy of visiting servicemen during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. But beyond the tram tracks on Johnston Road lies the original neighbourhood, home to a thriving residential community that was established long before the girlie bars and nightclubs first made an appearance.
Here, just like on the slopes above Central, stand a maze of wet and dry markets, resilient even as urban redevelopment threatens to encroach on two sides. It’s this colourful, chaotic mess that I walk through every Friday en route to the gym, beneath decaying tenements standing cheek-by-jowl with cookie-cutter apartment blocks, the newest ones clad in bathroom tiles and pockmarked with windows in aquarium green.
The noisiest part of the market is tucked down a side street, busy with afternoon shoppers hunting for fresh produce. I hear the stern voice of a labourer, doggedly pushing his empty metal cart through the crowds. “Look out! Look out!” he bellows. The air is thick with the smell of raw fish, dried seafood, and the pungent odor of durian.
On both sides, Styrofoam crates have been loaded with squid, scallop, shrimp and small fish, alongside bubbling tanks for the larger catches, ensuring that they remain alive up until the very moment a buyer snaps them up. I pass piles of leafy vegetables and boxes bursting with the vivid colours of tropical fruit: rambutan, lychee, dragonfruit and mangosteen. Further on, the crispy, glistening skins of several ducks, roasted whole, beckon in the open front of a specialist store.
Recent years have seen sizeable swathes of Wan Chai bulldozed and carelessly redeveloped. The 1930s market building – perhaps Hong Kong’s best example of Streamline Moderne – has now been consigned to the podium of a luxury high-rise. Nearby, the entirety of ‘Wedding Card Street’ was wiped off the map, taking out a community of small, family-run printing businesses. The outcry over its loss, along with the old Star Ferry Pier, finally catapulted the issue of heritage into the public consciousness. Today the authorities have taken a far more sensitive stance, renovating the area’s few remaining shophouses and converting them into restaurants and art studios. The street markets, arguably Wan Chai’s very heart and soul, are also here to stay.
Trackbacks & Pingbacks
- How much does it cost to live in Hong Kong?
- The Madness of Hong Kong’s Markets | backpackerlee
- How much does it cost to live in Hong Kong? - hongkong-easy.com
- How much does it cost to live in Hong Kong? | Lets Travel Super Places
- How much does it cost to live in Hong Kong? | Videos Kiss
- How much does it cost to live in Hong Kong? | Retirement Caclulators
thanks James, I like the way you describe the market, makes me feel like being there by myself 🙂 btw do you like durian?
Sama-sama Badai. 🙂 Ah, not really I’m afraid! I love most kinds of tropical fruit but durian isn’t one of them… it’s an acquired taste I guess.
o well, you should try any other tropical fruits later in Lombok 😉
Fascinating markets… wonderful illustration of a humble and intriguing lifestyle… love it !
Thanks! My favourite were the fruit stalls, everything looked so fresh, colourful and healthy. 🙂
I agree..I love outdoors markets
There are two of my favorite things to eat in this post: duck and mangosteen. 🙂 One day when I go back to HK I would really love to try the roast duck – they look really tempting. But speaking of preserving the heritage buildings, it’s such a relief to know that the local authority has finally taken actions to ensure generations to come will still be able to enjoy the old buildings.
The roast duck here is perfect comfort food – and as you said, it’s just one more reason to make a second trip to HK sometime. 🙂 Wan Chai has a couple of beautiful shophouses; it’s almost a miracle that they managed to evade the wrecking ball until now. I’ll have to write a special post on them in the future.
Your sentences and photos really bring me into the typical atmosphere of Asian market :)…..and those fruits and bags of snacks are so tempting haha
I agree about the fruit… at one point I came very close to buying some lychee. Not sure who would buy an entire kilo of roast cashews though! 🙂
Amazing. Hoping to get to Hong Kong next year
You would love it I think, and not just for the food!
Ummmm – all those lovely smells and sight-induced taste sensations! It’s mangosteen season here too, lucky us. I was so glad to hear the market’s place in the community has at last been guaranteed – what’s a community without a market, especially when people are constrained to live in buildings clad in bathroom tiles and, what was it you said? “pockmarked with windows in aquarium green”. (Oh James, poor you, the soul of an architect flayed by bad design and even poorer judgment! 🙂 )
Absolutely Meredith… the apartments here are so small that most choose to spend much of their time out in the streets (and shopping malls). I could go on and on about the bad design I see every day – it’s inevitable when the big developers are king!
Oftentimes, this rush for real estate development has effectively ruined the historic vibe of a place – anywhere. What’s sadly left is a scar of the past.
Once again I laud your narrative flair!
Thank you Dennis, that’s very flattering! I do wish that Hong Kong had the foresight to follow Singapore’s example – the pressure of development has been so great that there is precious little left from before the 1950s.
You know James, markets never held any fascination for me till I moved to an apartment (not one with aquarium windows thank heavens!) in a big city. Now, when most are being substituted by supermarkets, I can’t seem to get enough of them! Tragic this price we pay for development. And the bad design is insult to injury. Good to know some of these old market streets will survive. Your photos made me wish I was back amidst the bustle of Wanchai 🙂
The same was true for me, Madhu. It wasn’t until I moved abroad that I really began to appreciate Hong Kong’s street markets. Wan Chai is one of my favourite neighbourhoods – and it holds many memories from my childhood days. Summer afternoons spent with the cousins, karate classes at a community centre, and walking the streets with my father as a guide… 🙂
I’ve never eaten more fruits, nuts, and vegetables than I did while I was living in China. 🙂 I miss some of those fruits and veggies that you can only get in Asian countries!
The huge variety of fruit was one of the things I missed most when living overseas… the vegetables, not so much!
Gosh, it was almost like being there. Thanks for bringing the sights, and smells, back for me, James!
You’re welcome, Diana. 🙂
I love walking through markets and taking in all the bright colours and smells it has to offer. Your photos bring the market back to life! Thanks James!
Thanks in turn for the comment, Janaline. I’m glad you enjoyed this post! 🙂
just like the Markets here in Thailand its great to see the locals making a Buck
Yep, I’m glad these street markets are still around!
This post is a great reminder for me as to how lively and wonderful Hong Kong is. I can’t wait to go back! Awesome pictures James. They’re a whole story themselves.
Thank you, Derrick! It’s amazing to think that Hong Kong has retained its traditional feel despite all the skyscrapers; it certainly makes for a dramatic contrast. 🙂
Ah Suzie Wong! In Jakarta, the Kunstkring Restaurant has a dedicated bar to Suzie Wong. I haven’t read the story but the owner’s passion towards the story is infectious. Now, I’m curious to see the setting of the story. Are the old shop houses easy to spot?
There are a few old shophouses left in Wan Chai (they’re quite easy to spot), but you won’t find whole streets of them as you do in Singapore! That said, it’s still a fascinating neighborhood to wander around.