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HK Magazine Archive

Oxford English Dictionary Just Added "Wet Market"—But Why Are the Markets Called That?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 May, 2016, 5:12pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 5:08pm

This is one of those answers that is totally straightforward: Because of all the moisture. Because of the water spritzed on vegetables to keep them looking fresh, because of the tanks holding the fresh fish, because of the stalls which are hosed down at the end of a long day, scrubbed out to make way for the next day’s goods.

In Cantonese wet goods, “sup for” (濕貨), means “fresh produce”—as opposed to dry goods, “gon for” (乾貨), which entails everything from tinned goods to sweets to dried fish and Chinese herbs. A wet market specializes in fresh produce, although of course in practice the distinction, especially in streetside markets, is rather less fine. 

Hong Kong’s wet markets arose from China’s agrarian society. Farmers would be largely self-sufficient, but for the goods they couldn’t grow or make themselves, they’d have to barter for them: Hence the rise of market days, when the countryside would come together to buy what they needed, or trade away their excess. There are records of one of these “periodic markets” in Yuen Long as early as the 1500s.

As Hongkongers moved away from farming and into more specialized trades, the markets became permanent. They began to occupy official buildings as well as streets—and the city’s first official wet market is also its most tragic. 

A Central Market of some kind stood in the same spot since 1842, sandwiched in-between Jubilee and Queen Victoria Streets in Central. Once a grand Victorian structure, the building is now in at least its third iteration: A less attractive Bauhaus edifice built in 1938. But in its heyday, the Central Market was the biggest meat market in Southeast Asia—a nexus for the entire city’s next meal (less glamorously, it also hosted the first female public toilet in Hong Kong).

But as times moved on, wet markets sprang up closer to residential areas and supermarkets rose to prominence. Central Market fell out of favor, and was finally closed for good in 2003. These days one narrow section of the market serves as the Link Alley, that ugly bit we walk through between IFC and the Central Mid-Levels Escalator. 

The glory days of the market are long past. Revitalization projects are often mooted, but nothing much has been done for more than a decade. A promising “floating oasis” design fell apart. A new cheaper plan was finally approved in March this year, with a projected completion date of 2020.

It’s a poor legacy for a building that was once the city’s lifeblood. But perhaps that’s the inevitable fate of the wet market: Washed out at the end of the day, scrubbed away to make way for the next day’s goods.