Step into a typical Hong Kong wet market and you will see immediately why this colourful feature of everyday life here is in decline. Dead fish lie in sizzling summer temperatures with flies buzzing around them; the stench of poultry droppings can be overwhelming and drains are often blocked. It comes as no surprise therefore, especially after bird flu and Sars, that a Consumer Council study released yesterday shows environmental factors to be the main reason why customers are increasingly opting to do their shopping at the big supermarkets. Most people, more than 70 per cent, still prefer to buy their fresh food at the wet markets. But the percentage is falling. The future of wet markets is in doubt. The air-conditioned, hygienic supermarkets are threatening to gobble up more and more of their more traditional rivals' business.
But there are reasons why efforts should be made to allow the struggling stallholders to survive. Wet markets are an important part of our culture and a source of many jobs. They also ensure a more diverse and competitive environment for consumers.
The report calls on the government to introduce a number of measures to help make shopping at wet markets a more enjoyable experience and enable them to compete more effectively. One essential step for the government to take, as the council suggests, is to get out of the wet market business and give the job of maintaining and managing them to the private sector. Selling the markets to private enterprises would free the new owners to do what is needed to ensure they meet the demands of the customer.
A more hygienic, air-conditioned environment would be a start, but offering a wider variety of goods, providing customers with receipts, putting prices on the products and generally offering a better service is what is needed. It may take a little of the character away from the wet markets, but this is a small sacrifice if it guarantees their future.
However, the aim of increasing competition will not be served if the wet markets are sold off to the two major supermarket chains, Wellcome and ParknShop. That must not be allowed to happen. New entrants are needed to stimulate the sector and provide consumers more choice.
As the council suggests, a level playing field would also be required and the government should look at enforcing a stricter competition policy in this area. Consideration should be given to establishing rules to ensure fair competition and setting up an independent authority to handle complaints.
Ensuring an environment in which wet markets can provide colour but also convenience and comfort will not only help preserve a valuable part of our city's culture, it will provide a better deal for consumers.