Hong Kong is an ocean. It’s teaming with life swimming in ever direction, which can’t help bump into you like the frantic little fish washed by waves that bump into your legs when you’re in the ocean. Like the ocean it makes everything that enters it it’s own. Hong Kong is a reef builder. Dump a modern ship into the ocean and after a few years oysters have clustered the hull, competing for premium space on the new structure. New choral springs from the seats and bunks, and schools of fish take refuge in the abandoned kitchen. Buildings in Hong Kong soon become ships in the bottom of an ocean.
Even though Hong Kong has its share of shiny buildings, it is not those buildings. Hong Kong is the bamboo scaffolding wrapped around the ultra modern building. It’s the ramshackle open-air stores with corrugated iron, ply wood, and tarp roofs propped up against the tidy, right angles of the new community center. It’s not the modern shopping mall with glossy posters, gleaming marble tiles, Escher-esque escalators, crisscrossing over wide-open spaces to distant balconies, but the traditional market in the center.
Among the cold dead mechanical shopping centers is the beating heart of Hong Kong, the living throbbing market. In its activity, color and variety it most closely resembles the traditional reef inhabitants of Hong Kong. It is the chaotic, noisy, human, neighborly center. It’s warm currents bringing food to schools of fish and where the shelves of barnacles and oysters crowd the living quarters of a sunken ship.
Markets have more colors and shapes than tropical fish with their red lights hung low over fruits and vegetables of every possible color and shape and texture. There are vibrant green citrusy star fruits, the great yellow globes of pomelo, sugar sweet, squat, orange pin cushion persimmons, fierce red dragon fruit and lumpy lychees and prickly durian. Each fruit occupies its own special fruit area, which then melds into the vegetable area. Displayed in rows, boxes and crates are long dark green serrated luffas, cute fuzzy melons, toad skinned bitter melons, leafy lettuces, hot sweet and painfully hot peppers, potatoes, and too much to mention.
Meats uncooked and cooked have their own sections too. Dark brown ducks, cinnamon skinned geese and golden chickens hang in such numerous rows they could be mistaken as wallpaper. Each unique salty roasted scent and tint advertises that moist juicy meat is wrapped inside. Every animal is represented but the succulent ones get the spotlight. Pork ribs are cured to deep reddish brown and served with a ladle of their juices. Everywhere roasted meats drip their glistening savory juices down silver hooks onto tree stump cutting blocks where skillful men and women chop chop chop them, before slipping them neatly into a white foam container. Even though there are a great number of cooked things there are also a great number or live wriggling animals.
Finally here is where the line between the ocean and the market begin to blur. Markets are a place where you’re not sure if you’ve arrived at an aquarium to sightsee or a store to buy food. Entering the market you are immediately hit by the smell of living things, particularly fishy living things. In a variety of tanks, basins and buckets, fish, frogs, eels, shrimp, mussels, snails, and turtles, creep, hop, slither, twitch and snap. Each container has a hose running clean water to keep them alive. You pick the one that you want. Pick the one that splashed you as you walked by, or the one you want to free from this earth, because as soon as you do they’re whisked off, knocked on the head, scaled, and gutted, except for the heart. It is the freshest fish you will have because halfway home he wakes up and flaps around in your bag.
Bounty is always a word associated with the ocean, but maybe the market itself is a small inland sea. You can get everything you need, to fix your toilet, decorate your house, spice, cook, serve, and eat the food you’ve just purchased and towels, soap, and scrubbers to clean the dishes when you’re done. You can also get free Cantonese lessons. Whenever you buy something the worker will tell you the price or the name and wait, and then say it again. Finally you realize they were waiting for you to repeat, and if you butcher it, which you will, they will patiently repeat several more times no matter how many customers are waiting.
Markets are the community and if you want to see traditional Hong Kong people go there. It is there that you realize that despite a lot of new buildings that make Westerners comfortable that the traditional Hong Kong is just under the surface. So if you want to see the real Hong Kong don’t look at the shiny buildings because all you’ll see is your own reflection. Look at type of coral that has grown on and around that building then go inside because the food market is just one section of the reef.