Hong Kong Wet Markets: A Sensory Excess

While some people prefer buying groceries in the clean, comfortable and standardized supermarkets, many locals in Hong Kong venture into the outdoor, loud and vibrant wet markets because the prices are lower and the quality is higher.

A wet market (街市) is where fresh meat and produce are sold, distinguished from dry markets which sell durable goods such as cloth and electronics. Wet markets frequented by the locals are situated at Graham Street in Central, Tai Po Hui, Chun Yeung Street (春秧街) in North Point, and Bowrington Road in Wan Chai, to name but a few. You will find stalls selling a cornucopia of goods ranging from poultry, live fish, fresh meat, to fruits and vegetables.

Thriving Since Colonization – Wet markets have long been a feature of Hong Kong life. Before the British arrived in the 19th century, markets took place once or twice a week in towns like Tai Po. After colonization, daily street markets began to emerge. As Hong Kong Tourism Board put it, “Hong Kong’s multitude of wet markets are windows into a vivid and timeless world of food shopping that refuses to be extinguished by modern supermarkets.” Thus, sounds characteristic and distinctive of wet markets are soundmarks of Hong Kong.

At the Height of Activity – A wet market in full swing would make a spectacular soundscape because it is clamourous and overwhelming, if not raucous and chaotic. It is a sensory excess with a long list of actions taking place, for example, vendors of different stalls hollering, hawking their products; butchers chopping meat; vendors gutting and scaling fish; vendors and customers bargaining; shoppers bustling about looking for the best deal. More than anything, human voices are a prominent component in the sonic environment of a wet market. You may even notice a pattern in sounds heard at the wet markets at different times of the day. You may find domestic helpers engrossed in fast-paced chatting in the mornings and vendors crying out reduced prices at night when they are about to close their stalls. More often than not, a busy wet market is as much a visual feast as auditory overload.

Indoor Wet Markets – Some wet markets have retreated indoors into government-operated market buildings. Plans to redevelop have moved stalls indoors. A well-known example of indoor wet markets is Kowloon City Market which has as many as 581 stalls. While some indoor wet markets have air-conditioning, some mimic supermarkets and broadcast sales announcements. With the wet market being enclosed instead of exposed outdoors, what do you think would happen to its soundscape?