I visited the St. Norbert Farmers Market here in Winnipeg this week and I was struck by the contrast between it and the fresh produce markets in Hong Kong. They were called wet markets.
A wet market is a collection of stalls that sell fresh produce. The markets are almost always located indoors in large concrete buildings with high ceilings and grey tiled floors. Every neighborhood in Hong Kong has one and they’re all much the same. A wet market is wet. The floor is wet and dirty because the merchants are constantly hosing down their seafood, spraying their fruits and vegetables to keep them fresh, or washing the blood off their knives after they’ve killed a chicken or hacked open a pork carcass. You have to watch your step. There could be escaped green frogs hopping on the floor or a flapping fish that’s flipped out of its basket.
The aisles in a wet market are narrow and you have to fight your way ahead, especially a couple of hours before dinner when hundreds of Filipino maids and Chinese grandmothers are there selecting food for their family’s suppers. Despite the screaming fish sellers, the slippery floors and the wall-to-wall people the wet market is really a place of beauty.
The merchants take great pride in arranging their produce in colorful arrays. In the display boxes of the vegetable stands deep purple eggplants are piled up next to creamy white onions. There are fat orange carrots splayed out in a sort of fan shape around buckets of crisp green beans, mountains of yellow corn cobs and baskets of bright red tomatoes. In winter the vegetable stands are sure to feature a hot wok where deep brown chestnuts are being roasted and baked yams have been split open so their aroma can entice the buyer.
At the fruit stand bananas are displayed in clumps sometimes hanging from the ceiling. Every banana is pointed in the same direction. Red apples, purple grapes, yellow mangoes, prickly green durian and orange pumpkins create a visual feast for the eyes.
The seafood sellers can expertly flip their fish from tank to basket to bag in swift sure movements that looks like a kind of ballet. In ice filled trays they’ve lined up silver skinned fish in lovely, even rows that are meticulously rearranged every time a fish is removed to sell to a customer. The pattern barely seems disturbed. My gaze would be riveted for a moment on dozens of glazed eyes staring up at me from fish heads neatly spread out in semi circular arcs on trays. There are crayfish crawling over one another in a nearby basket and grey turtles trapped in a white netted bag, their mouths taped shut so they won’t bite.
Even the displays of dead fowl at the poultry -sellers stalls have a certain bizarre artistry about them. There are trays of little baby ducks, de-feathered, roasted a deep brown, their heads and beaks still intact and pointing heaven ward. Pink chickens, looking naked and red hang in stark contrast to others that have been baked to a golden crisp.
Interspersed between the market booths are tall cherry wood altars, with golden Buddhas, burning sticks of incense and brass bowls of oranges set out as offerings.
I always left the wet market with my shopping bag full of fresh produce and my head full of images bright and bizarre and beautiful enough to create a painting.
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