• Peter Alton

Hong Kong: Back to Basics

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

The Cantonese people are often more demanding of their food than anywhere else in the world. Only the freshest meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables will be tolerated and being an island the absolutely freshest seafood is a necessity. Dining out is much happens more frequently than in the West, but for those who do cook at home there is no such thing as the monthly shopping trip. Cooking and food storage space is often limited within the confines of the average Hong Kong apartment so stocking up on food is really not an option. A chest freezer is almost unheard of in the family home and refrigerated food is a last resort as it is not considered to be fresh.

A daily shopping trip to the market therefore is an absolute necessity for a large proportion of the island’s residents. The wet markets in Hong Kong are very busy as they are the backbone of Hong Kong’s cuisine providing the freshest ingredients to a very demanding clientele. They are called wet markets simply because at the end of each day the stallholders hose down the streets to clean up after a busy days trading. These markets sell all kinds of fish, meats, fruit and vegetables; some recognisable old favourites and some weird and wonderful Asian specialties. You will find butchers displaying their goods hanging from hooks, often disturbingly exposed to the elements on the most basic of stalls, side by side with wet fish stalls selling fish and shellfish so fresh that the majority are still very much alive. You will also find dried food stalls with a bewildering range of dried fish and meats sitting next to stalls selling chickens so fresh that they are still alive all penned in their metal cages oblivious to the fate that awaits them.

My favourite wet market in Hong Kong is the Bowrington Road Market just across the road from Times Square in Causeway Bay. The market named after the colony’s fourth governor Sir John Bowring and shelters under the gaze of the nearby South Pacific Hotel capturing the very essence of day to day Hong Kong life. The market is a living and breathing entity that beckons you into its midst offering you many varied delights from all across the globe all for sale to an appreciative and knowledgeable customer. Just watch how the Asian women handle the produce checking for freshness and you will be left in no doubt that they know exactly what they are looking for.

This is the only place where I have ever seen customers smell the fruit and vegetables before purchasing, followed by a slight nod of the head to confirm acceptance of quality. I would like to try sniffing the fruit or vegetables at my local Sainsbury’s but to be honest I think I would be looked at strangely and probably escorted out of the store. In the UK we may have all sorts of pressure tests and sugar tests to confirm the freshness of our fruit but in Hong Kong a quick prod and sniff seems to confirm the quality just as well.

If you approach the market from the Morrison Hill Road side at first it looks like any other market around the world. You will no doubt be welcomed by piles of cardboard boxes being dutifully broken down by an old man seemingly older than the market itself. He loads these onto a rickety old barrow, which with amazing dexterity he steers through the active market without once stopping for breath. I am constantly amazed at how in a busy market everyone seems to avoid one another. People are rushing back and forward having to negotiate pedestrians, barrows and even the occasional car, which has taken a detour through the streets, yet they still manage to avoid knocking one another sprawling to the ground. I think they must all be born with an internal satellite navigation system, which enables them to move freely without fear of knocking into one another.

The only sounds you hear are the busy chattering sounds of the market and the occasional car horn from an impatient motorist, perhaps a trainee taxi driver in waiting. In Hong Kong it soon becomes apparent that there are only three types of cars on the roads; taxis, old dilapidated delivery trucks and brand new Silver Mercedes, there is simply nothing in between. There are now more expensive cars on the road than ever before and it is very rare to see an old banger of a family saloon car. Public transport is so cheap and parking very difficult and expensive that it is only the very rich, taxi and delivery drivers that drive on a day-to-day basis.

As you pass the crushed boxes on the outskirts of the markets you will walk past open shop fronts selling the most beautiful flowers. Visit the area during the Chinese New Year and you will see the most wonderful displays of blossoming flowers symbolising rebirth, along with orange and tangerine trees signifying abundant happiness. The most popular plants in Hong Kong are the peonies, water lilies, azaleas, pink lotus, bamboo and the beautiful bird of paradise plant.

If a new shop or restaurant opens on the island then you will frequently see the front of the premises adorned with a wide array of flowers on bamboo frames to get the business off to a good start. Flowers have deep significance in Hong Kong with each variety signifying something good or bad. Be very careful when sending flowers here as even the most insignificant bloom can contain a hidden message. The simple orange blossom represents eternal love, marriage and fruitfulness while in contrast the cyclamen represents resignation and goodbye. The azalea is the Chinese symbol of womanhood while the marigold represents cruelty, grief and jealousy. Flowers it seems have a language of their own so it is always best to ask the stallholder or florist before buying rather than risk sending the wrong message.

If you enjoy flowers then I recommend taking a trip on the Star Ferry across to the Kowloon Peninsula and then on the MTR to Mong Kok and the famous Flower Market, which has a permanent residence surprisingly enough in Flower Market Road. It is a very colourful place and definitely worth a visit at any time of the year. In fact Kowloon has numerous markets with often whole streets selling one product. You can visit the Jade Market in Kansu Street, the Bird Garden in Yuen Po Street or even the Ladies Market and the Goldfish Market at opposite ends of Tung Choi Street. The Ladies Market I have to point out does not sell women but is a place where you can find bargains in women’s clothing, bags, jewellery and cosmetics.

Perhaps the most famous market in Kowloon however is the Temple Street Night Market, which opens from 4 pm until midnight offering a wide variety of clothing, gifts and souvenir stalls along with a staggering choice of cooked food outlets for the hungry shopper. These vary from full blown restaurants and street cafes to the traditional dai pai dong stalls that still frequent the area. You can even enjoy watching the various street performers or have your fortune told by the assorted fortune tellers who set up their stalls on the south side of the Tin Hau Temple. Be aware that Kowloon is very much more in your face than Hong Kong Island and that you will not be able to walk more than a few paces without someone trying to sell you a watch or the latest camera equipment. A simple, ‘No’ normally suffices but some are persistent particularly if you are obviously a tourist searching for that elusive bargain. There are bargains to be had but also there are people fortunately in the minority who want to rip you off and make a fast and easy dollar. Just be aware and remember that any bargain that looks too good to be true probably is, so just walk away.

One of my favourite markets is the colourful Goldfish Market on Tung Choi Street, which offers a huge variety of tropical fish for the budding aquarist. Hong Kong may be famous for cooking fish but the keeping of fish as pets is surprisingly popular as well. The word for fish in Cantonese is Yu, which means prosperity and good fortune. A pair of fish represents a strong marriage so it is not surprising that in a culture where symbolism has great importance that fish keeping is very popular. The Goldfish Market sells not only goldfish but also a wide variety of tropical and semi-tropical fish and all the paraphernalia you need to keep them. Huge cichlids vie for space alongside shoals of colourful neon tetras alongside exotic varieties of goldfish such as the ranchu, oranda and ryukin. It is well worth a visit just to see the vast array of colourful fish available to buy.

If you prefer your pets with feathers then the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden is the place to visit. Built in 1997 as a replacement for the old Bird Street Market it is situated 10 minutes from the Prince Edward MTR station and is a popular haunt of tourists and locals alike. Worries over the spread of bird flu has resulted in this market being less active than in years gone by but it is still a busy market with 70 stalls selling caged birds and all the various accessories for keeping them.

You will often see people walking about the garden with their pet birds in small bamboo cages which they hang on the provided hooks before relaxing on the benches in the tranquil surroundings of the gardens. Owners and birds alike meet it seems for company and conversation with the whole place reverberating with the song and chatter of birds. The stalls have everything from budgerigars, finches and canaries to lovebirds, mynah birds and parrots with the latter two shouting Cantonese phrases at you when you walk past. Some are even bilingual greeting you in Cantonese and English now that really does put us all to shame. It is a pleasant place to visit and somewhere that offers an area of tranquillity away from the general noise and commotion that constantly surrounds Kowloon.

Close to the Temple Street Night Market at the junction of Kansu Street and Battery Street you will find the beautiful Jade Market. Open daily between 10am and 5pm the market here is permanently under cover and has over 400 stalls selling jade of all types and for all pockets. Here you will find infinite pieces of carved and highly polished jade in a whole manner of colours ranging from the traditional green nephrite to the rarer jadeite which can be found in various shades of white, black, blues and reds. The stallholders here can be a bit pushy but take your time and haggle and if you are lucky you may come away with a bargain. Jade is important to the Chinese as it symbolises excellence and virtue.

Most Chinese carry a piece of jade with them in the hope that its qualities will rub off on them. Buying jade is an art so don’t spend a lot of money unless you know what you are looking for. As a general rule jade should be cold to the touch and with a consistent colour throughout the piece.

If food markets are more to your liking then Bowrington Road Market in Causeway Bay is really is worth a visit just for curiosity alone. The fish stalls at Hong Kong’s wet markets are perhaps some of the best in the world and also the most interesting for anyone with an interest in food and quality. The Bowrington Road Market is no exception as each stall has a life of its own with a huge display of weird and wonderful aquatic life just oozing freshness and quality. Large prawns wriggle and propel themselves off the stalls in a desperate bid for freedom, while large grouper like fishes look you in the eyes from large fish tanks offering the occasional splash from within a huddled group as if aware of their destiny.

Highly skilled Fishmongers wield seemingly unnecessarily large cleavers to fillet fish upon fish with such speed and delicate dexterity that not even the smallest piece of flesh is wasted. Their knife skills are so good that long after filleting the glistening hearts still bodily attached continue to beat while lying on the crushed ice in front of the eyes of the hungry consumer.

Hong Kongers love their fish and shellfish demanding the best from their markets. Even the smallest prawns seem to merit the attention of the discerning shopper as they are ladled into a plastic bag ready to be carried away like some goldfish won at the local fare. The goldfish would be condemned to live its life in a plastic bowl with nothing but a rock and next door’s cat for company while the prawns seemed destined for greater things in this land of rich cuisine. Hong Kong imports in excess of 32,000 tonnes of live reef fish for the restaurant trade each year. Other seafood favourites include crabs, prawns, salmon, oysters, lobster and abalone which is a highly sought after mollusc very reminiscent of scallop.

You are also likely to see the ever popular sole for sale often being referred to locally as dragon’s tongue, along with another popular favourite called a yellow croaker which is a member of the drum family and can grow up to 30 lbs in weight.

On the butchers stall freshly slaughtered carcasses hang from large hooks dripping blood onto the street, as passers by look on oblivious. The earlier you arrive the fresher the meat and the more blood that flows. Aprons and jackets which started the day white develop a crimson hue as the day goes on making the whole scene seem like an extract from a Quentin Tarantino film. Pig’s trotters, hang side by side with whole ducks and geese shining golden in the morning light, along with trays of organs and entrails compete with strange cuts of meat all open to the elements. Further along metal cages house the live white-feathered chickens who look out from their residence on death row watching their executioner plying his art on a side of pork.

The fruit stall is next on our journey an oasis of colour in the middle of the market. Colourful plums, oranges, grapes and bananas compete for space up against exotic dragon fruit, huge pomelos, jackfruit and colourful rambutans. The dragon fruit also known as pitahaya. or strawberry pear is a member of the cactus family and has its own rather unique appearance. The fruit has bright pink skin which is slightly leathery and inedible but once cut in half it reveals an opaque white flesh dotted with small black seeds. It is eaten raw and has a taste similar to kiwifruit and may be made into juice or wine. It is low in calories and the red fleshed version high in antioxidants. It is extremely popular in Hong Kong with many legends surrounding the origin of its name.

One of the most popular legends states that the fruit was created by fire-breathing dragons while others suggest that the fruit itself resembles a dragon’s egg. Either way it is thought that by eating a dragon fruit you gain the power, strength and ferocity of a dragon. It is not unpleasant to eat but generally brought for its ascetically pleasing appearance rather than its taste.

The pomelo is an Asian favourite, a citrus fruit slightly larger than a grapefruit with pale green or yellow skin that is particularly thick and pithy. The flesh is sweet, varying in colour from pale yellow to deep red and very reminiscent of its cousin the grapefruit. Quite often as is the Asian way the fruit is eaten with salt which can seem strange but actually seems to balance the taste. The pomelo can weigh as much as 10kg with a large thick rind which you can often watch being peeled at the market by the dexterous stallholders. It is an amazing sight because some of these reach the size of a small watermelon and they are somehow peeled with ease keeping the skin in one piece using the universal Chinese clever that seems to be everywhere.

The jackfruit is an all purpose fruit seen commonly on market stalls. It can be eaten ripe or unripe, cooked or uncooked with both the flesh and seeds being edible. It is green in colour with a thorny surface and is usually quite large in size at around 18kg and 25cm in diameter. It has quite a strong and acquired taste which is reminiscent of pineapple but on riper fruit it is accompanied by a cloying pungent smell. It is rumoured that jackfruit is used as the flavouring for the famous juicy fruit chewing gum although this has never been officially confirmed. One of the more unusual fruits is the rambutan which is a colourful relative of the lychee and longan and a native of Southeast Asia. The fruit is oval in shape around 3-6cm in size with a thick red leathery skin which is covered in soft spines. The inner flesh is white with a hint of pale pink and has a sweet but slightly acidic flavour. It has a large dark single seed inside which should be discarded as it is poisonous and can cause extreme nausea. The rambutan is very popular and eaten frequently as a snack by the young and old alike.

Next to the fruit stalls you will find equally as colourful vegetable stalls trying to entice the shopper with some of the freshest produce around. One of the perennial Cantonese favourites which you will often see on show is asparagus which is imported in huge quantities and used in equal measures in the home and restaurant. Of the more unusual vegetables you will see, bitter melon, bok choi, taro and jicama are common examples found frequently across the island.

The famous bitter melon is very reminiscent of a rough skinned cucumber. It has a crisp texture and a sharp, bitter taste and is usually eaten green although it can be eaten when it ripens and turns yellow. It is seen in a variety of shapes and sizes although typically it is around 20 to 30cm in length. It is used in soups and stir fry dishes where other ingredients can help balance the bitter taste of the melon. Another favourite is the bok choi or Chinese white cabbage which is easily distinguishable as it has broad green leaves tapering to white stalks. They are mild in flavour and should be cooked for only a few minutes to preserve the crunchy texture of the leaves.

One of the most popular tubers found in Hong Kong’s market is the taro root. It is an oval-shaped brown root, which is prepared and eaten in the same way as potatoes. The flesh is starchy and may be creamy in colour or speckled purple according to the variety. It is commonly steamed and added to soups or stir fry dishes and is even used in desserts. The leaves of the taro are edible and cooked as greens in the same way as spinach. One of the more unusual vegetables that you may come across is the jicama otherwise known as the yam bean or sweet turnip. It is another root vegetable, which grows in single lobed tubers with a pale brown skin and a white internal flesh. It may be eaten raw or cooked lightly to retain its crispness with a slightly sweet and very pleasant taste. Again it is commonly used in soups or stir-fry dishes or occasionally as an ingredient in spring rolls.

Wet markets are extremely popular and from a culinary point of view they form the basis of the cuisine that helps to define Asia. Hong Kong is rightly proud of its food and rightly proud of its wet markets and despite efforts to modernise and bring them up to date they remain like the dai pai dongs as a link to Hong Kong’s past. Legislation and health and safety regulations is threatening the markets existence with refrigeration and covered produce the way forward. In some respects it is a good thing but in others we risk losing the true character and flavour of these markets.

The real value of these markets lies in their popularity and the amount of paying customers who shop there. Quality of food is always high as the average Hong Kong shopper has choice and if the produce on sale is not good then they will go elsewhere. The turnover of meat and fish is also very high, so the likelihood of your lunch sitting out in the sun exposed to all the elements is very slim. I have shopped and eaten off the markets and stalls here for many years and even my delicate Western stomach has suffered any ill effects. Sometimes legislation goes too far and runs the risk of destroying what for many are the best markets in the world. As modern Hong Kong moves forward so the past bows out and it would be a real shame if some sense of the magic of these markets did not remain. Good food relies on good ingredients and for many years Hong Kong’s cuisine has been built on the firmest of foundations.

If the Bowrington Road Market is my favourite example of a wet market in Hong Kong then my favourite market for clothing, jewellery and souvenirs is without doubt Stanley Market on the south side of the island. Stanley Market used to be a quiet fishing village but today it is a busy attraction for the bargain hunting tourist amongst breathtaking scenery and some of the best beaches on the island. The drive out to Stanley is perhaps one of my favourite on the island. Hop on the number 6 or 6A bus from Central and take a seat on the top deck and you will be treated to some great scenery as you meander your way towards the market. You will see expensive villas nestling over the most spectacular views, large hotel complexes and golden beaches all surrounded by lush vegetation which until recently was one of Hong Kong’s best kept secrets.

Chek Chu is the area’s Chinese name but it takes its English name from Lord Stanley, the nineteenth-century British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. It was the administrative centre of the island before moving to Victoria or Central as it is today. Stanley was also the place where the Japanese defeated the British in their occupation of the island in December 1941. The area aside from the market is famous for its two sandy beaches; Stanley Main Beach on the east and St. Stephens on the west. It is an interesting area with a mix of bars, restaurants, scenery and shopping to keep most people amused.

Arriving at the bus terminal walk across the pedestrian crossing and down the hill and you will find the market spread out before you.

Initially it looks unimpressive but the whole area is like a rabbit warren with a huge amount of alleys and thoroughfares that take you meandering through the streets past stalls, shops, restaurants and art galleries. The stalls are all reasonably priced and haggling is accepted so you may just grab yourself a bargain. I always end up here at least once a trip and come away with some clothes or souvenirs. There are a few nice cheap restaurants offering good quality and cheap cuisine or a Delifrance and Pacific Coffee (at the top of the hill) if you need that burst of caffeine before (or after) hitting the stalls. Walk through the market and out the other end and you will find yourself overlooking the beaches and some stunning scenery.

Years ago the area was home to a whole community of boat people but these are now long gone. You may see the odd junk bobbing in the water but generally it is a very picturesque and tranquil scene. History also tells us that the area was once frequented by pirates but nowadays the only pirates you will see are the tourists looting the stalls. The difference is that the tourists actually pay their way although judging by some I have seen their bartering is not far short of piracy.

Stanley Market is open from 9am until 6pm and it is an extremely friendly place that is worth taking the time and trouble to find your way around. If you visit be sure to be patient and not buy anything straight away but wait and compare prices in the middle of the market as you may find the same item much cheaper. I have found that the stalls on the perimeter of the market are usually more expensive as they catch the visitors as they arrive while the stalls inside are generally where the bargains are to be found. This is not always the case but the best way to find that favourite Filipino bargain is to look around until you find the cheapest price and then try to haggle with the others and you never know that bargain may be yours. Obviously like all markets there are fakes and overpriced items but shop with a wary eye and you will find that there are also many deals to be found.

Hong Kong is an excellent destination for shopping with most prices generally cheaper than in the US, Europe or Japan. The lack of sales tax means that electrical and branded goods are particularly cheap especially if you shop around. You will find excellent shopping malls at Pacific Place in Central, Times Square in Causeway Bay and the IFC in Central. One useful thing to remember is that when shopping in malls that have outlets on multi-levels is that it is often beneficial to go to the top floors first. This is because the rent on these outlets is cheaper so realistically you have more chance of finding a bargain here. Always remember to ride the escalators between floors on the right hand side to allow any impatient shoppers to pass by on the left.

Kowloon offers some shopping bargains particularly along the length of Nathan Road, which is the main route through Kowloon from Tsim Sha Tsui to Mong Kok. It is lined with a whole manner of shops and restaurants and was affectionately known as the ‘Golden Mile’ in the 1950’s when it was the place to be. Be careful if you are shopping for electrical products anywhere in Kowloon as some the prices can be deceptive and you may not be getting the bargain you first thought. In general I would recommend any of the Broadway or Fortress chain of electrical retailers as they are well known and can offer good bargains. If you are buying anything electrical research the specification and prices at home first and work out the price in Hong Kong dollars before you fly then at least you will have something to work on.

In the heart of Hong Kong one of the most popular shopping centres is the International Finance Centre or IFC Mall. Here you will find over 200 of the best fashion, electrical and jewellery retailers with fashion houses such as Burberry and Armani Exchange alongside Hong Kong favourites such as Lane Crawford and the Kee Wah Bakery. One of the biggest and most ambitious shopping complexes on Hong Kong Island is Pacific Place. Situated in Central alongside the Bank of China Tower and a stones throw from Hong Kong Park it has an ideal location. It has a retail centre space of 710,000 sq. ft. and boasts three hotels, over 200 shops and a cinema complex. You can find department stores, such as Lane Crawford and Marks & Spencer here along with the fashionable stores such as Louis Vuitton, Prada and Versace on the upper floors. It is clean and spacious and boasts excellent restaurants and a food court on level 1 where the choice of food should suit any taste.

Times Square is a somewhat hidden shopping and office complex in Causeway Bay particularly popular amongst the younger generation. It has an excellent cinema along with a wide variety of restaurants along with an excellent food court on the lower ground floor, which has a wide selection of food from across Asia at very reasonable prices. Times Square also has the first city super store in Hong Kong along with a wide variety of designer shops and clothes boutiques. It was opened in April 1994 on the site of the original Hong Kong Tramway’s depot.

If you fancy something more unusual then take the tram to the Western Market just along from Central on the way to Kennedy Town. You can’t miss this large Edwardian building with its famous red brick walls and the large granite arch over the entrance. Built in 1906 this building was originally the site for a fresh produce market but after a renovation in 1991 it opened as a place selling traditional Chinese fabrics, handicrafts and souvenirs It even has a Chinese restaurant on the top floor and my favourite place in Hong Kong for desserts, Honeymoon Dessert on the ground floor. Close by is the Sheung Wan Market on Morrison Street which is a traditional Chinese produce market selling fruit, vegetables and freshly butchered meats.

The second floor here is home to a wide variety of stalls serving light snacks which is definitely worth a visit. It is extremely busy here and with a lack of air conditioning extremely hot in the humid Hong Kong summer. The stalls are packed at lunchtime and it is daunting as a Westerner walking amongst the locals in what obviously isn’t a tourist environment. The food here is basic but nevertheless excellent and really cheap as well and worth the few stares you get as you come through the door. I visited here on my own and had an excellent bowl of beef noodle soup.

Another area which causes much confusion to shoppers are the various sales in shops sometimes offering as much as a 90% discount on the store price. The way discounts work in Hong Kong is that signs tell you how much of the original price you will pay. So a sign offering 90% is really offering a 10% discount as you are paying 90% of the original or advertised price. It does take a little getting used to but in the end it does start to make sense.

Shopping is excellent in Hong Kong and whether you are after designer goods, a digital camera or some souvenirs for the family back home there really is something for everyone. The wet markets and Stanley market give you a taste of old Hong Kong while Pacific Place and Times Square bring you right up to date with the best in fashion and design. Enjoy your food and enjoy your shopping because Hong Kong excels at both and is the destination of choice for shopaholics and gourmands alike. Take your time and look around and I am sure you will find that bargain no matter how big or small your budget is.

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