Traders who keep the juices flowing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2012, 12:00am


During the day this mass of shabby market stalls looks utterly dead. It seems impossible that these old market booths, alleyways and parking bays could be the hub of a thriving exercise in commercial efficiency.

But don't be fooled: the Yau Ma Tei wholesale fruit market is unlike any other market in the city. It comes alive only after midnight, and for one purpose: the sale and transfer of about 76,000 boxes per night of highly perishable imported fruit to Hong Kong's vast network of independent fruit stalls, juice shops and wet markets.

'Others may see it as a messy, humble-jumble and crowded area, but we have our own schedule, our own way of operating,' says Cheung Chi-cheung, vice-chairman of the Kowloon Fruit and Vegetable Merchant Association.

For almost a century, the market's 'own way of operating' has meant a chaotic-seeming whirl of movement and noise. It begins late in the evening, when most people are going to bed. Fleets of trucks bring in the fruit; crowds of labourers appear to unload it. Soon crates of fruit are rising in piles, crowding the stalls and laneways and spilling into nearby roads.

The action is incredible. Workers drag crates and boxes around on squealing push-carts, as buyers and sellers yell and gesture throughout the warren of alleys and stalls.

When it's all over at 6am, suddenly the market is neat, orderly and quiet again. There are no signs of waste. Once again, those tens of thousands of fruit boxes got to their destinations.

'We have our own logic here. Every box of fruit you see has been meticulously accounted for,' says market veteran Gordon Mok Chak-keung, of the merchant association, who guided the South China Morning Post during two nights spent at Yau Ma Tei recently.

The wholesale market has been in operation since 1913, more than a decade before the historic Yau Ma Tei Theatre was built just across the street. It is one of the oldest markets in Hong Kong, and a witness to social, cultural and physical changes over the years.

'This is a piece of real living history,' says Cheung, who inherited a wholesale fruit stall from his father and has worked there since secondary school.

Back then the market sold far more than just fruit.

'There were chicken, duck and goose stall vendors, the vegetable stalls, the rice sellers, the fish stalls, and us, the fruit vendors,' says Cheung. It handled almost all the fresh food sold on the Kowloon peninsula.

By the 1930s, the area had become a bustling day market. Many of the beautiful awnings - with the names of fruit stalls carved in stone - date from that time.

However, the government later moved the poultry merchants to another location. Then the nearby seafront went through several reclamations and the fishermen moved away.

By the 1960s only the fruit merchants were left. Today, around 200 individual wholesalers operate there.

'From the 1960s till now, the place hasn't changed much,' says Cheung. Only its hours of operation have changed, shifting from normal daytime hours to the middle of the night, to avoid problems with traffic and transport, says Cheung.

The market's original maritime connections live on in the traders' slang, Mok explains. 'Traditionally, the people who bring us the cargo are called teng ga - [Hong Kong's original] boat-dwelling people. We still call them 'boat people', and some of them are descendants [of real teng ga],' says Mok. Today's teng ga bring in the fruit from the airport and shipping docks.

On a recent evening, merchants hurried to examine their shipments to decide on their prices by midnight, when the buying and selling begins. The busiest time is from 3am to 6am: shouted bids and counter-bids mingle with porters' yells and the creak of their hand-made wooden carts grinding on the cement under heavy loads. Workers bustle about, gathering fruit to be loaded onto trucks and taken to different parts of the city.

'We import from everywhere. We have Israeli fruit, Australian, American, Taiwanese ... depending on the season,' says a 63-year-old merchant, Mr Leung. He joined the industry in 1964, and opened his own stall with a partner in 1973.

At another stall, a Mr Sin holds up a bunch of grapes and says: 'We import from Peru right now, as it's in season at the moment.'

Sin, who has been working at the market for almost 40 years, says the business is all about knowing your fruit - when the fruits are in season, and in which countries.

'You need real business sense,' says 78-year-old Tsang Lun, who has worked at Lai Kan Fruit Stall since he was 15. 'Fruit is so perishable; you must know what people want and import the right amount, so you don't waste fruit. It takes sound judgment.'

His boss, 88-year-old Lai Kan, is one of the oldest and most respected merchants at the market; his stall specialises in selling oranges.

By 6am, like clockwork, the trucks and overflow crates have disappeared from the nearby roads, and the market area looks neat and clean again. When the banks open at 9am, accountants and bosses deposit the money.

The old-timers are left to wonder how much longer the market can continue. Young people are not drawn to the work, and pressures to relocate are mounting.

'They've been talking about moving us since the 1970s,' says Cheung. 'It hasn't amounted to much yet, but unfortunately it probably will happen one day. The government doesn't care much about tradition, heritage and history, and this is a tasty and prime piece of land.'

He fears for the city's fruit business. 'Without us to keep the market competitive, Hongkongers would not be able to afford fruit the way we can today,' he says.

'Big corporations like ParknShop and Wellcome have made business tougher and tougher for us, but we do what we can do. Without us, the roadside stall or local fruit vendor in your neighbourhood would probably not exist.'