MARKETS: BLOOD & GUTS IN HONG KONG
The first thing that's weird about Hong Kong is when you fly in. The main runway is built on landfill that extends into the harbor between Kowloon (the most densely populated area in the world) and and the jagged skyline-with-mountains of Hong Kong Island. You see buildings and boats and billboards and neon signs flashing by at wing's length. As the lights of the city rise above you, you ask your neighbor by the window if he sees anything out there that looks like a airport--and touch down before you see it. It's like landing in Times Square. Leaving the airport you pass the largest Marlboro sign in the universe, worthy of the Egyptians or the Incas or those guys who built Stonehenge.
I got to Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago and have been staying in a guesthouse in the middle of the Wanchai Market. It's an old part of town--low grey buildings, restaurants, printers, and metalugists working into the street, open stalls with vegetables, meat and clothes. The market will probably disappear sooner or later between the highrise residential buildings on the mountain-side and the gleaming office towers towards the harbor, but for now it's an exciting place.
The other day, walking up Wanchai Road, I was slowed by a green truck creeping through the crowd ahead of me, barely thin enough to fit between stalls perched with oranges, eggs, dried fish and cheap watches, among other things. The back of the truck was open and inside the truckbed was strewn with whole skinned pigs--big, freshly dead and glistening. And between their carcasses were piles of entrails, dollops and jelly sacs of intestines, kidneys, and other internal goodies. A boy or young man, brown and bare except for a pair of shorts and plastic sandals, was squatting in the back of the truck, sliding the white-pink lucent pig-bodies around, and making piles of guts between his hands.
The truck stopped and the boy jumped into the street behind the truck a few yard ahead of me. He grabbed the nearest pig, which looked to be about four feet long and maybe 75-100 pounds, hoisted it up from the floor of the truck and slung it over his shoulder. As the flesh at the pig's belly made contact with his body, a jet of blood issued from the carcass, soaking and flowing down the boy's back. I had been stopped stunned by the whole scene, but here I jumped back fast to avoid a warm splatter of pig fluid on my tourist regalia.
Under the weight, he staggered from the street between a couple of stalls, into an open meat shop and deposited the pig carcass on the store's tile floor with a plop-thud before hustling back into the truck to make the next delivery....
The next morning as I set out for my morning run up the Wanchai Gap, I noticed a small crowd forming on a side street off the market. I stepped to the edge of the circle of people--the kind of quick city group that forms around 3-card monte games in New York--and saw a middle-aged Chinese man in causal Western clothes speaking sharply and gesturing, like an evangelist or hard-salesman. The object of his words and gestures was an old man, who it turns out was the straight man or lame boy of this Chinese medicine showman/street dentist.
The man held a large knife with which he was carving pieces from some sort of root and feeding them to the old man. On his signal and extravagent gesture (I imagine he was saying something like, "When I give the word, you'll spit out that rotten tooth and feel no pain whatsoeverer!), the old man opened his mouth and let a rotten, bloody tooth fall into a napkin the "dentist" held out.
The man continued to gesticulate and spiel, the growing crowd stared on fascinated as the process continued and the old man dropped three more blackened teeth from his bloody lips and gums. In front of him on a piece of cloth were scores of rotted teeth, previous successes, and a row of white new dentures which he now raised towards the old man as if to say that all he had to do was replace those bloody stumps with these sparkling ivories and he'd be as good as new.
I don't know if this guy was selling the magic tooth-pulling root or the dentures or both, but he certainly had his audience transfixed. But I'd seen enough, and felt happy to stick with the familiar tortures of Western dentistry, happy to shake those ugly images from my early-morning head and get on with my jog up the Gap.
A couple of Chinese women who were taking a break from shopping to watch the show pulled away from the crowd as I did. They were smiling and shaking their heads, and we shared a glance that said, well, we all know that someone's leg is getting pulled by this fancy-pants "dentist," but it sure isn't ours.
Today I took the ferry from Hong Kong Island over to the Kowloon side. There I wandered in the light rain up Nathan Road, vaguely looking for a camera I couldn't afford or a Thai restaurant I was afraid I'd have to wait till Bangkok to find.
That led me to the market in Temple street, a food market in the daytime, mostly meat and fish. In the middle of the road, on a series of overturned baskets, were displays of freshly gutted fish--and I mean fresh: the gills of the severed fish heads still palpitated, the hearts of their newly bisected bodies still beat. The hawkers of these tempting wares stood by shouting abruptly, bagging heads and bodies for their customers, occasionally pulling live fish from a bucket and similarly dispatching them. They (the fish sellers) seemed to be of a different race, darker and more rugged--something provincial, not of the city. I imagined they had different accents and a rougher way of speaking, and their appearance was made more exotic by the plastic bags on their heads, worn against the increasing rain.
A little farther along a man was selling live frogs from a net bag. The bag squirmed with hundreds of the hopping creatures and people crouched down to point out the particularly good-looking frogs they wanted to buy. The man in charge pulled them in a handful from the bag and, several at a time, cut off their heads fast with a sharp knife. Then, just as quickly, with his bare hands, he pulled the skins off the frogs in a single piece, one by one, like pulling a sock off a foot inside out. So in a matter of seconds they became skinless, headless meat and muscle, shaped like a little frog and still jumping away.
I drew my little camera, but the guy started yelling as soon as he saw it. So I had to wait and sneak a hip-shot nervous, afraid he'd see me, and not too comfortable with what I'd already seen these guys do with knives and living things.
What makes us so thrilled and squeamish at such sights? And why are these people so primative and exotic to us? The fish and fowl and flesh we eat come from the same animals--we just don't see them going from living thing to nouvelle cuisine.
The market is a place of transformations--from living to dead, from animal to foodstuff, from yours to mine. Bargaining determines the goods' true worth, and these exchanges (without corporations or bosses to distance them from labor, time, and money) have essential meaning and are never taken lightly.
This is Asia--the Asia I didn't
see or feel much of in Japan...but it's not what makes Hong Kong really
weird. What's really weird is that a half-mile or so from the blood
and mortality of the market is a shining business city, as gleaming and
modern as anything in Tokyo or Midtown, teeming with suits and briefcases,
sterile and energetic like the glint in the eye of a presidential assassin.
Hong Kong 1988