To market, to market...” The line from the old nursery rhyme is the daily mantra in the world’s greatest bazaar. From street stall to stock exchange, harbour quay to designer mall, the process of buying and selling, barter and exchange are embedded as deeply into Hong Kong’s roots as the foundations of its skyscrapers. The trading of every conceivable commodity begins at dawn and carries on well beyond dusk. The range of choice, the passion and energy, and the potential of an unrepeatable bargain, are simply irresistible.
The focal point of every local neighbourhood is the wet market, stocking the essential perishables – fish, meat and vegetables. The watchword is “fresh”, which is why much of the fish and seafood is still alive and kicking or flapping until moments after the sale is agreed, when the transaction is completed by a few deft swishes of a blade. The filleting and dismembering can be a challenge to the squeamish and the vegetarian alike, but the freshness of the produce is beyond dispute.
Most of Hong Kong’s food is imported from China (although a fair amount of it also comes from Thailand, Taiwan and other Asian countries). But even on the remote, outlying islands – alongside the pungent dried fish, bacon and liver sausage; the duck eggs preserved in clay and charcoal to be eaten years later, and the knobbly, prickly, unfamiliar fruits – I was able to find plump oranges from California, grapes from Australia and bananas from the Philippines.
For generations, the main wet market on Hong Kong Island was housed in a vast covered building in Central, but this infinitely valuable piece of real estate fell prey to the developers, and new pitches have sprung up, more randomly, in the narrow streets and alleys up the hill towards SoHo.
There’s fruit and veg in Graham Street, meat, fish and much more besides in Gage Street, Peel Street and Wellington Street. One Sunday morning I found a group of women combing through cardboard boxes of underwear seconds at less than £1 an item. In Hong Kong, you can take away a market-trader’s building, but he’ll always find somewhere else to pitch his stall.
Away from the city, at the southeast corner of Hong Kong Island, Stanley Market has long been a magnet for tourists in search of a bargain. Spilling beyond the covered stalls to the surrounding streets in the manner of London’s Camden Lock, the merchandise is variable, but next door to the rag trade seconds you’ll find affordable paintings and prints in small art galleries, and especially low prices on good quality bed and table linen. At S.K. Lau Jewelry, which has been trading beside the market’s two great banyan trees for 36 years, the manager reassured me of the quality of his stock by claiming that he’d sold a bracelet to Bill Clinton when the former President visited Stanley a few years back on a book promotion tour. When he lowered the “best price” on a pair of ear-rings seven times in four minutes, it was hard to resist him.
To experience the city’s markets at their cornucopian best you need to cross the harbour to Kowloon, and allow at least half a day for an exhilarating but exhausting mile-long expedition from the Mong Kok district southwards. Here, eight of the city’s great bazaars and specialist shopping streets are arranged in an almost unbroken chain. Some are worth visiting for their smells, sounds and spectacle alone; others lie in wait, piled high with temptation.
The market trawl begins near Prince Edward MTR station, where the air is filled with the cacophony of songbirds, valued according to the beauty of their tunes and displayed in exquisite, rosewood cages at the Bird Market. Next, you pass through the sweet-smelling Flower Market and the equally colourful and exotic Goldfish Market. Now the hard sell begins, as these dedicated markets give way to two specialist retail streets. “For sportswear, go to Fa Yuen Street,” my hotel concierge had advised. “Sportswear” turns out to be a euphemism for trainers, filling wall after wall of identical-looking stores. It’s very keenly priced for last year’s styles, ranging from HK$150 (£9.60) to HK$2000 (£126) for the latest release from Nike and its rivals. It’s also worth checking out the wares in the handbag heaven of the Ladies Market, but much of the stock (including watches, luggage, clothing and paintings) seems equally appropriate to men.
In truth, none of the markets are quite as specialised as they claim to be. The first shop I saw in Sai Yeung Choi Street – noted for its keenly priced cameras and electronics – was a branch of Clark’s Shoes, of all places, and open-air stalls on the corner were frying squid, fish and chicken for eating on the run. The street contains about 30 electronics stores offering models that have not yet appeared in the UK. Prices are not usually negotiable, unless you are purchasing in substantial quantities. Before buying anything, make sure a worldwide warranty is included. The Hong Kong Tourism Board strongly recommends visitors purchase electronic goods or expensive jewellery only from stores which are part of the QTS (Quality Tourism Services) scheme. This checks on the quality of goods and services in both shops and restaurants. Participating stores will have a sticker featuring the QTS logo and the current calendar year in their window.
As sunset comes and goes in a trice the Night Market at Temple Street springs to life. Bright lights illuminate the stalls and the experience is enhanced by a range of vivid side-shows. Street entertainers, Chinese opera singers and even professional chess players compete for your attention.
Any money left? And any energy left with which to spend it? Southeast Asian jade is coveted everywhere, and the Jade Street market – open during the day only – has 400 stalls selling jewellery, ornaments and trinkets made of the semi-precious stone, although you need to know a bit about the different grades to ensure you get value for money.
Did I buy anything? Long before the end of the longest and finest shopping trek in Asia, my pockets were worryingly empty; my arms painfully full.
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