HONG KONG'S dirty wet markets are notorious for everything from their putrid air to the poultry droppings and overflowing sewage that often contaminate their floors. Small wonder then that even as government food officials boasted about Hong Kong having one of the world's best bird-flu surveillance systems - as shown by the speed with which it detected the latest outbreak - they could only remain red-faced about how the SAR's wet markets are still far filthier than markets in many other countries.
Last week, about 800 chickens at 10 public markets, all run by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, were killed by the highly infectious H5N1 influenza virus. This prompted the slaughter of more than one million birds in a bid to contain the virus.
The fact that the infections occurred only in retail stalls, not in farms or the Cheung Sha Wan wholesale market, has again raised the question of poor hygiene in wet markets. Microbiologists have warned that keeping large numbers of live birds in markets makes it easier for the virus to grow. It also increases the likelihood of the virus being able to 're-assort' and make the leap to humans, increasing the risk of fatalities. The hot environment in the markets, where there is no air conditioning, also helps the virus spread.
Wet-market stall operators see the bird-flu crisis as not only a threat to public health but also a threat to their livelihoods. It might also sound the death knell for one of Hong Kong's favoured shopping habits. Already, there are signs that the younger generation are not shopping at wet markets but choose to cruise the aisles of supermarkets, where they can buy fresh vegetables, seafood, meat and ready-made meals in hygienic, air-conditioned comfort. Customers also have the options of paying by credit card and having their goods delivered home.
Hong Kong has more than 200 public wet markets. About 120 are run by the Housing Authority and the rest by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. Only 42 of them - about one fifth - have air-conditioning. Stall workers endure temperatures of about 40 degrees Celsius in the summer.
Legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip said he was astonished by the 'horrible' situation in the scalding room at Yeung Uk Road market in Tsuen Wan, where 200 chickens died during the latest outbreak. All poultry-stall workers at the markets share one scalding room, where they soak live chickens with hot water and wax before removing their feathers.
'The ventilation system of the market cost millions of dollars, but it is not working well. I visited the scalding room there a few years ago. It was boiling hot. The whole room was so stuffy and full of smelly steam coming from hot water and wax. It was a terrible place.'
Mr Chan said although the Government had later spent a lot of money to improve the ventilation of the scalding room, conditions had not improved significantly. Another legislator, Lau Kwong-wah, said stall owners at a Tseung Kwan O market had complained to him two years ago about poor ventilation. 'I visited the market and checked the temperature with a thermometer. It was 42 degrees. Not only chickens suffer in such terrible conditions; human beings cannot stand it.'
The Housing Authority later installed air-conditioning at the market, and operators agreed to bear the cost. Mr Lau said the Government and the Housing Authority, as owners of the markets, had the obligation to provide a healthy, comfortable environment for stall operators and shoppers.
Poor hygiene in local wet markets has long been a problem. In 1993, a research team from the then-City Polytechnic of Hong Kong collected data from 1,000 market stalls and found much of the food was sold in conditions of poor hygiene. Blocked sewers and unhygienic practices, such as spitting and smoking by hawkers, were likely to affect fresh goods.
Bird flu, which first hit Hong Kong in 1997, has seriously threatened the poultry trade. Chicken stalls and farms have to close for weeks when, during an outbreak, live poultry are temporarily banned from the markets. There are also deeper concerns. The spectre of bird flu is widely believed to have driven shoppers away from the wet markets.
Heng On Market in Ma On Shan serves as a typical example of how superstores can play a part in pushing markets out of business. Lau Wan-hing, a fish-stall owner at the market, said since a well-known superstore opened nearby a few months ago, the whole market had become a 'dead city'. He worries that the bird-flu crisis will scare off the market's remaining loyal customers. 'No one likes to come here any more. There is no air-conditioning, and the market is like an oven in the summer. I always feel I am living with lots of bacteria.'
Mr Lau said many stalls had closed after failing to survive the competition provided by the superstore and that his own income had been cut by half. His fish stall used to have a turnover of more than $10,000 a day, but it has now dropped to about $5,000.
Stall operators at the market are discussing with the Housing Authority the possibility of installing air-conditioning. In an attempt to drum up business, they recently rented a shuttle bus to bring residents in nearby housing estates to shop. It costs $30,000 a month. 'It is time for us to do something to save ourselves,' Mr Lau said.
The two major supermarket chains, ParknShop and Wellcome, have been promoting hygiene and the provision of quality fresh produce, putting staff through food-handling courses and checking suppliers' procedures. David Durnford, ParknShop's marketing director, said the bird-flu crisis would increase the public's expectation of market hygiene. He said the company had tight food-quality controls, from the food suppliers to the shelves.
Mr Durnford said supermarkets had cornered about 30 per cent of the food market in Hong Kong. 'For the past few years, we have seen a transformation in customers' habits. They look for higher quality of both food and hygiene.'
However, he added that it was wrong to say superstores would cause the phasing out of wet markets completely. 'We have two different sets of customers. Most are young families who have a high demand for hygiene and food safety, but some people still enjoy the traditional shopping experience in the wet markets.'
Market-research firm AC Nielsen published a study last September which found only a handful of 1,000 households surveyed bought all their fresh produce from ParknShop or Wellcome, and more than 75 per cent of fresh food was still bought from markets. Fanny Chan Ying-fong, the director of AC Nielsen's 'Homescan' survey, said wet markets benefited from people's impression that 'they're the cheapest, they're fresh and there's more variety'.
Wet-market hawkers are now eager to increase their competitiveness with the supermarket giants by having their shopping environment upgraded. Ng Leung-sing, chairman of the Housing Authority's commercial property sub-committee, said shopping in superstores was an 'irreversible trend'. He did not rule out the possibility that superstores would eventually replace wet markets on some new estates.
'Our main objective is to provide residents with choice. We always face a dilemma: residents want to have a superstore near their home - they like the good hygiene and variety. But stall operators of wet markets protest, saying it affects their business. We hope superstores and wet markets can co-exist, and we have been making efforts to improve the environment of the wet markets.'
Mr Ng said the authority spent more than $100 million a year on renovating shopping malls and wet markets. The projects included improvement in ventilation and lighting and general maintenance. 'But whether people want to go to wet markets also depends on the self-discipline of the stall owners. They have to keep the place clean in order to keep the customers.'
Only 30 out of about 120 markets run by the Housing Authority have air-conditioning. 'For some old markets which have an open layout, there are practical problems in installing air-conditioning,' an authority spokesman said. 'We have also come across situations where some stall operators refuse to bear the cost.' The authority is now upgrading more than 10 markets, and four of them will have air-conditioning installed.
Only 12 of the 81 markets run by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department are air-conditioned. The department plans to spend about $1 billion installing air-conditioning in another 16 markets. Secretary for Environment and Food Lily Yam Kwan Pui-ying said in a Legislative Council panel meeting on Monday that the Government would review the management of wet markets, including measures to improve hygiene, as a result of the bird-flu crisis.
She said installing air-conditioning would be a complex project. 'It is not only about installing an air-conditioner but also about changes in the design of the markets. It carries a high cost, and who is going to bear the cost?' Ms Yam added it was a common practice for chicken-stall owners to squeeze as many chickens as possible into the cages. Only 13 birds are supposed to be held in each cage, according to government guidelines.
One proposal, said Ms Yam, was to make it compulsory for all stalls to de-stock regularly - for example, once or twice a month, for complete sterilisation. Currently, the Cheung Sha Wan poultry wholesale market has three rest days a month when cleaning is carried out.
The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department inspects the markets every two to three weeks. For the past 12 months, it has issued 82 summonses, 32 written warnings and 4,407 verbal warnings to poultry-stall tenants for breaching hygiene regulations. The average fine is $1,200. The department is also conducting urgent repair and maintenance work on communal scalding rooms and is cleaning the ventilation systems of poultry sections in markets while business is suspended.
Ms Yam said it was time for the trade to get rid of its unhygienic practices. 'On and off, I have personally received phone calls from district-board members asking for leniency for the stall owners, saying that our hygiene regulations are too harsh. I hope that after this recent experience, I will never receive those phone calls again.'
At the end of the day, the traders had a responsibility to keep their own house in order to restore public confidence, she added. The future of the markets might depend on it.
Ella Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a staff writer for the Post's Editorial Pages