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Strolling Wan Chai’s markets

Wan Chai Market_1

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.

Wan Chai Market_2

Business as usual

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The day’s catch

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Small fish aplenty

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Bags of cashews, assorted nuts and snacks

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Cantonese roasted duck

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Going bananas

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Durian seller handling ‘the king of fruits’

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Aubergines and stalks of choi sum (Chinese cabbage)

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Plump, juicy mangosteen

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Hairy rambutan from Southeast Asia

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Lychee season in ‘The Big Lychee’

36 Comments Post a comment
  1. thanks James, I like the way you describe the market, makes me feel like being there by myself 🙂 btw do you like durian?

    June 21, 2013
    • 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.

      June 21, 2013
      • o well, you should try any other tropical fruits later in Lombok 😉

        June 21, 2013
  2. Fascinating markets… wonderful illustration of a humble and intriguing lifestyle… love it !

    June 21, 2013
    • Thanks! My favourite were the fruit stalls, everything looked so fresh, colourful and healthy. 🙂

      June 21, 2013
      • I agree..I love outdoors markets

        June 21, 2013
  3. 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.

    June 22, 2013
    • 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.

      June 22, 2013
  4. Sonny Hendrawan Saputra #

    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

    June 22, 2013
    • 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! 🙂

      June 22, 2013
  5. Amazing. Hoping to get to Hong Kong next year

    June 23, 2013
    • You would love it I think, and not just for the food!

      June 23, 2013
  6. 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! 🙂 )

    June 23, 2013
    • 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!

      June 23, 2013
  7. 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!

    June 23, 2013
    • 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.

      June 23, 2013
  8. 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 🙂

    June 23, 2013
    • 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… 🙂

      June 23, 2013
  9. 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!

    June 25, 2013
    • The huge variety of fruit was one of the things I missed most when living overseas… the vegetables, not so much!

      June 27, 2013
  10. Gosh, it was almost like being there. Thanks for bringing the sights, and smells, back for me, James!

    July 2, 2013
    • You’re welcome, Diana. 🙂

      July 4, 2013
  11. 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!

    July 9, 2013
    • Thanks in turn for the comment, Janaline. I’m glad you enjoyed this post! 🙂

      July 10, 2013
  12. just like the Markets here in Thailand its great to see the locals making a Buck

    July 10, 2013
    • Yep, I’m glad these street markets are still around!

      August 28, 2013
  13. derrickli718 #

    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.

    August 27, 2013
    • 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. 🙂

      August 28, 2013
  14. 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?

    December 29, 2016
    • 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.

      January 1, 2017

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