by Aoife Black

What Is Gaai1 Si5?

Dimmed lights, red lampshade, fishy scent, meat-chopping sound, and the soaking floor – they interweave and form swirls of freshness beneath the ceiling’s shaky, rumbling fans. Here you hear people screaming from their throats, with the blaring vibration spiking through your eardrums, “jau6 peng4 jau6 dai2 maai5 lei4 tai2!” (Cheap and fresh! Come and see!) These overlapping chants echo all over the atmosphere with people pushing against each other’s shoulders. Amidst this chaos, you find a somewhat organised environment with a one-of-a-kind taste of Hongkongness – welcome to the wet markets!

The wet markets that are embedded in my childhood memories, as well as many Hongkongers, were like that. There was a time we all craved to escape from this dampness, noisiness, and crowdedness, and asked our parents “when can we leave!?” Throughout the years, wet markets in Hong Kong have been renovated – air conditioning, re-organised stores and hygiene measures have been implemented to catch up with the hurried footstep of modernised Hong Kong.

Hong Kong wet markets have a long history since British colonization. At first, most stalls were set up on the streets and therefore were also called street markets. These markets were not designated areas, instead, they were spaces for hawkers to gather and sell their products. Back in the times, vegetables, poultry, groceries, and other necessities flooded the streets. As time passed, the Urban Council relocated these hawkers due to the hygiene and management issue and hence public markets were established. Although most markets moved into public or private buildings, traditional markets are still scattered around Hong Kong, such as Tai Po Hui Market and Luen Wo Hui Market in the New Territories, Mong Kok Flower Market and Goldfish Street in Kowloon, and Sai Ying Pun Centre Street Market in Hong Kong Island.

A Not-Very-Short Tour of Tai Po Hui Market

Tai Po Hui Market is one of the go-to places for CUHK students who want to cook some delicious cuisine or a quick meal in their dormitories. It is only one station away from the campus and therefore saves a lot of time for our hectic, and of course, diligent students. Tai Po Hui Market is located in the Tai Po Complex. It was established near the old markets nearby in 2004, along with a sports centre, a food centre, and a library in the same building. Located in a gigantic building, Tai Po Hui Market takes up two stories.

Your first impression walking in will be the scent of fish and meat (I guarantee). On the left, you sense the wetness of the wet market under blue lights. Here, people in rubber boots and aprons  handpick a variety of seafood for you, from oyster to eel, to abalone, and to any seafood you can possibly imagine. (This might be an exaggeration, please narrow down your imagination in case of disappointment when you visit the market!) If you want to get fish, the owners can remove the scales and intestines for you at lightning speed. Note that, and I emphasise, the fish jump out of the tanks all the time, so try not to freak out! On the right side, a scarlet atmosphere would overtake your mind because of the lampshade and the meat. In there, butchers, also known as “professional meat-segmentation technicians,” wave their cleavers and cut out the exact portion of pork you want for dinner. Before COVID, you could also pick living chickens and have them slaughtered and their feather removed in front of you. Of course, all sorts of packaged and frozen meat can be found as well.

When you are done with seafood and meat, take the escalator to the second floor and get fruits and vegetable. Fruits and vegetables give another vivid, colourful and iridescent delight. Walking through the crammed aisle, you can find traditional Chinese vegetables such as “choisum” (菜心 coi3 sam1) and “bakchoi” (白菜 baak6 coi3), as well as organic vegetables or super fruits. From stall to stall, fruits from all over the world pile up like small hills. You might find Australian cherries, Chile blueberries, American oranges… they can be from anywhere around the globe.

After fruits and vegetables, it starts to get mind-boggling, because the second floor has a handful of random goods you would never expect to find. Now, you might wonder how “random” it can get – it is just a market after all. Nonetheless, here you can locate stores for flowers, towels, clothes for old ladies, meatballs and much more. You can even find frozen Oreo cheesecake if you look hard enough. It is like a treasure hunt. What is best is that these treasures can go straight to your stomach, so brace yourselves, young connoisseurs. Now that you have explored most parts of the market, your tour guide would like to take you to the mysterious and extraordinary “grocery store” – the Hong Kong special Zaap6 Fo3 Pou2.

Zaap6 Fo3 Pou2 – Hong Kong’s Unique Kind of “Grocery Stores”

“Zap fo pou” (雜貨舖 Zaap6 Fo3 Pou2), can be literally translated as “store for random products,” which is fairly accurate as their products range from all kinds of seasonings to manufactured snacks. The Chinese slang “the Seven Necessities” (開門七件事 hoi1 mun4 cat1 gin6 si6), which are known as firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy, vinegar, and tea, were the must-buy items for every household. Of course, all besides firewood are still sold in these stores.

Miss Chan (alias), the owner of one “zap fo pou” in Tai Po Hui Market, has been working there for 15 years since the market was established. Her grandfather founded this store around 60 years ago and her mother took over before her. When she was small, she helped out in their old store after school every day. Back in the days, business was family and family was business. Nonetheless, the rapid change of modernisation blew through the market industry like a hurricane. Chan’s siblings were reluctant to quit their stable and fairly paid jobs and hence she became the third generation’s “heir.” Despite the decline in the number of both wet markets and store owners, Chan loves this job; “Many perceive wet markets as dirty or old-fashioned and therefore are reluctant to work here. Still, it is my family business and I have a responsibility to look after this legacy. Besides, it is flexible. I can take a day off if I feel unwell or when my children are in need, as you know, I have to look after my children and attend their school activities occasionally. It is definitely better than my previous job in the hotel industry.”

As we were conducting the interview, a grey puffy paw reached out from the bottom of the shelf. Chan chuckled, “Beware of our cat! She is a vicious little creature. A few years ago, rodent infestation was very severe and rats were everywhere. We couldn’t use any rat poison because we sell food, therefore we got a kitten.”

Focusing back on the nature of “zap fo pou,” what people find most mysterious are the products. Chan’s store’s signature products are fermented soya beans, salted eggs, smoked sweet pork sausage and all sorts of traditional Guangdong seasonings. Currently, they sell other Chinese manufactured food too as the mainland new immigrants introduce many cuisines from their own provinces. With advanced technology and the rise of globalisation, Chan also started selling Japanese, Korean and Thai sauces. 

Nevertheless, the connection between customers and sellers is not as close as it used to be. “It is true that we’re selling less and less traditional food. In the past, there was more physical connection as the customers could pick the products themselves and we would weigh them. But now, all products are packed and labelled because of laws and regulations. Customers can simply pay and leave. Its advantage is that this is way more convenient for non-Cantonese speakers such as domestic helpers and tourists.” She admitted that there was more “warmth” (人情味jan4 cing4 mei6) in the past. They used to know their customers very well but that is history. She still recognises some of them, but in-depth relationships are no more. Nonetheless, she is very open-minded towards the inevitable change of the environment and society.

Why Wet Markets? Wouldn’t Supermarkets Do Just Fine?

If you have been to the campus supermarket (,which is in the main campus near Benjamin Franklin Centre and the swimming pool), you would know that it can sustain you for the entire semester if you are too indolent to travel elsewhere to get food or necessities. It is undeniable that supermarkets are taking over traditional markets. In 2020, the number of supermarkets reached 2286, 917 more than in 1998 [1]. Urban development also accelerates the decline in numbers of markets. Currently, there are 221 markets in Hong Kong, but most public markets face an enormous deficit, and some are vacant for over a decade. It appears that the Hong Kong government has neglected these management issues for the past few decades. Moreover, Ko Wing-man, the former Secretary of the Food and Health Bureau, claimed that the Hong Kong government had no plan to introduce more markets [2].

Why are wet markets important? Every morning people cram into wet markets like sardines while sellers hold up their speakers and scream their lungs out. Why are markets irreplaceable that people would rather get packed inside the crowd?

Varsha, a year 2 Indian student from our university, gave us some opinions. Firstly, it is the price. She was living on campus before the pandemic outbreak and cooked regularly in the dormitory. Food in supermarkets is sometimes double or triple the price of those in markets – going to the Tai Po Hui Market keeps her wallet from shrinking. Being a vegetarian, Varsha also looks for a huge variety of fresh vegetables and fruits. “I love vegetables and fruits in the wet markets because they look really fresh and you can pick the good-looking ones, those in the campus’ supermarket look really ‘dead’ and there isn’t much choice.”

Convenience is also a factor for her, even though the campus supermarket is close, Tai Po Hui Market is only one station away. The hygiene is acceptable and it is not dirty. An air-conditioning system has also been installed so the shopping environment is quite pleasant.

On top of that, wet markets offer a fascinating view of Hong Kong. According to Varsha, wet markets truly reminded her of Hong Kong’s fast-paced living style. It is noisy and crowded but not in a negative way, it is simply very “Hong Kong”. She also finds wet markets eye-opening because they sell many things from clothes to beans and flour. She loves that the sellers are astonished that she knows how to speak a little Cantonese. “I remember one time I said ‘mm goi’ (thank you) and the ‘auntie’ was so nice that she gave me a handful of nuts which looked like horns, it turned out they were water chestnuts. Even though I didn’t know how to cook them, it was a fantastic experience. Also, when I buy vegetables, they always give out free spring onion. The sellers in the markets are generally very nice, most of the time the purchase happens really quick but they’re never mean or rude. Some of them even recognise me and tried to chit chat with me. One of them remembers me and was delighted when I brought my other international friends over.”

Experience Hong Kong in its Realest Form – Visit Wet Markets!

How to Get There?

If you would like to visit Tai Po Hui Market, go from Tai Po Market Station’s exit A and walk straight. It takes no more than 15 minutes. If you’re interested in other markets as well, look them up! A lot of them are close to MTR stations.

Worrying about the Language Barrier?

Our student Varsha agrees that the language barrier is definitely an obstacle. Currently, her entire family has moved to Hong Kong and her mother specifically faces some troubles while purchasing from the stalls as she does not know how to speak Cantonese. But don’t worry, most store owners can speak simple English and count. If not, body language or writing the numbers down could be an option as well. Nonetheless, Varsha pointed out that learning how to count in Cantonese is really useful, her local friend from CUHK taught her numbers in Cantonese as well as several useful phrases for simple requests and bargaining. (It also helps you to get free stuff.) Sometimes she does not know what the sellers reply, but this is still a great way to break the barrier and interact with Hongkongers.

Useful Phrases

EnglishChineseUnofficial Easy and Quick PronunciationOfficial Jyutping Romanisation
Thank you!(when you buy something)唔該!mm goi! m4/ng4 goi1
Thank you!(when you receive a gift) 多謝! doh zeh!do1 ze6
Come on, a little cheaper please?(For bargaining)平啲啦! pen dee lah!peng4 di1 laa1
How much?幾錢呀?幾多錢? gei chin ah?/gei doh chin? gei2 cin2 aa3gei2 do1 cin2

Counting in Cantonese

EnglishChineseUnofficial Easy and Quick PronunciationOfficial Jyutping Romanisation 
One piece一個 yat goh jat1 go3
One package 一份 yat funjat1 fan6
One dollar一蚊 yat munjat man1
Two (2)leungloeng5
Three (3)saamsaam1
Four (4)seisei3
Five (5)ng/mmng5/m5
Six (6)lukluk6
Seven (7)chuh(t)cat1
Eight (8)baac(t)baat3
Nine (9)gaugau2
Ten (10)supsap6
Thirteen (13)十三 (10,3)sup saamsap6 saam1
Thirty (30)三十 (3,10)saam supsaam1 sap6
Thirty-three (33)三十三 (3,10,3)saam sup saamsaam1 sap6 saam1
One hundred (100)一百yat baacjat1 baak3

Go with the Locals!

Varsha suggests that going to wet markets with locals makes it much easier. Besides learning the language, she also got to know the little details about wet markets. For instance, food is more expensive in the stores on the front row, if you walk inside, it might be more economical. She mentioned that local students in CUHK are very helpful and are willing to socialise with international students, therefore it would be amazing to try out other local activities and visit new places in Hong Kong with them as well.

Do Not Hesitate to Ask!

This is a really important reminder. Miss Chan from the “zap fo pou” reminded foreigners to always ask if they are not sure what to buy. As most of the stall owners can speak simple English, they could be very helpful, you might be enlightened by Hong Kong culture as well. Chan shared an interesting experience, “I remember vividly that one time, a foreigner approached us and asked if the smoked sweet pork sausages are ready-to-eat. I was like, “no, no! They are not salami! You have to steam them first!” See? Do not be shy! Or you might have to sit on the toilet bowl for days and miss out on an opportunity to try some absolutely unique local food.

The Future of Wet Markets

Wet markets are gems of Hong Kong culture, but where are they going in the future as modernisation and globalisation take over? We have addressed the decline of numbers and the vacancy issue of wet markets earlier. Another significant concern is the privatisation of markets – real estate investment trust Link REIT has been acquiring estate malls and markets, which put many store owners in agony over the ever-increasing and exorbitant rent while stirring up much controversy regarding monopolisation. And this eventually reaches for the general public’s wallet. Political activist Agnes Chow Ting also addressed this concern of the public’s burden thanks to privatisation and joined several campaigns regarding the preservation of local malls and markets. [3] The “Zap fo pou” owner Miss Chan also told us,  “if Tai Po Market is to be privatised, it’s very likely that we would not be able to continue our business anymore. Developers like Link REIT put stores into their markets under their own label, and they raise the rent to an unaffordable price. I have also heard that they make up excuses to drive away businesses that are “not suitable for their marketing directions.”

So, what will be the destiny of wet markets? With advanced technology, the lack of government management and the threat of monopolisation, will wet markets still stand in a few decades? Or will this flavour of Hongkongness be washed away by the waves of tomorrow?

[1] 食物安全及環境衞生,立法會秘書處,資料研究組,2017年9月27日。

[2] 政府無計劃興建新街市,《星島日報》,2012年10月31日。

[3] 團體聖誕遊行撐墟市 反對領展拆售商場,imediahk.,2017年12月21日。


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