I find that I really enjoy the wet markets here in Taiwan. They bring a sense of history, a sense of place, and a sense of community. In Mandarin they are called “cai shichang”, meaning vegetable market. However, they sell much more than just vegetables. They also sell meats, fruits, nuts, clothing, household goods, and more.
Wet markets have been around for a long time. They are very similar to a farmer’s market in the United States but with an Eastern flair. And why are they called wet markets? Because the ground is often wet from spray bottles, hoses, and melting ice that are used to keep food fresh.
Wet markets do not have fixed operating hours, therefore individual stands will open at different times. Markets are either open early in the mornings or late afternoons, so people can buy goods before they head to work or on their way home from work. The ones in the morning are referred to as “morning markets” and the ones in the afternoon as “afternoon markets”. (I love that the Chinese culture is so literal and clear in naming things!) Most markets are closed on Mondays. During holidays and weekends, the markets are even more packed.
What do they look like, you ask? What will you see? They are open markets that vary in size. The one near my house, Shuinan, is one of the oldest and well-known in Taichung so it is quite big and always busy. Whereas the one near my friend’s house only runs the length of one street block. Vendors set up alongside the street, each with their own stall. Many vendors rent the same space every day, however there are some spaces that rotate renters. Some markets are indoor or covered by a large metal roof, some are only alongside the street, and others a combination of the two, like Shuinan. Depending on the market, you will see crowds of pedestrians as well as some bicycles and scooters. We’ve even seen a car or two trying to make it’s way through the street, but it’s extremely slow going. Indoor markets or ones where the area is covered by a roof are usually pedestrian only.
No matter what market you go to, there is always a lot of noise: shopkeepers yelling out deals, scooters coming and going, chopping, frying, blending, and the general hustle and bustle. The range of smells in just this one location is one of a kind: seafood and fish, raw meat, fresh fruit, discarded vegetables, herbs and spices, humidity, dust, and scooter exhaust. You will see tables and tables of fresh and even some imported produce (for example apples from the United States), fresh meats being cleaved, cleaned, and displayed, rows of fish, large bags of nuts or herbs, piles of discarded boxes, pre-made meals in boxes to go, and layers of clothes hanging on display. Some vendors will just place a tarp on the ground and set out their recently plucked produce. I’m truly impressed, and sometimes overwhelmed, by the sheer quantity of items that are fit into one tiny stall.
It is not common to see prices listed for items. Prices are closely connected to the freshness of the product, the quantity available due to weather and season, and your bargaining skills. Being that I am an introverted Minnesotan with western guilt, I stink at this! I also don’t really have a grasp on what is an acceptable price for items to begin with so I have no baseline to bargain from without the fear of offending someone.
Unfortunately, the wet market has been on the decline. With the rise of the supermarket, longer work hours, and the invention of the refrigerator and microwave, wet markets do not have the same pull on people that they once did. Supermarkets, with their sanitary environment, air conditioning, longer hours, and neatly organized displays, are an appealing alternative to the traditional markets. Younger generations who are always on the go seem to prefer this. The advent of the refrigerator and microwave make it even more convenient to buy frozen and instant foods for quick and easy meals. Furthermore, “traditional markets used to have the first pick of goods and volume-pricing advantages, but the competition for wholesale products is giving such advantages to the highest bidders–and hypermarkets are able to buy in huge volume and knock down costs as a result” (Trappey). Therefore, the lower prices that the markets are known to offer are not always the best deal. Additionally, going out to eat in Taiwan can be relatively inexpensive. If you go to the right places, it can be cheaper than buying groceries and preparing your own meals.
So what will become of the wet market? Only time will tell. In the meantime, we do our part in visiting the various markets and local shops around our house. As we do, we feel that we are entering into a unique piece of Taiwanese culture.
Trappey, Charles V. “Are Wet Markets Drying Up?” taiwantoday.tw/ct.asp?xItem=325&ctNode=2198&mp=9. Taiwan Today. 1 March 1997. Web.