I’ve been visiting Hong Kong ever since I was a toddler and one thing that always hits me when I return is its peculiar, unmistakable smell. While the name Hong Kong itself means, ‘fragrant harbor’ – there’s typically nothing too fragrant about the bustling streets and alleys in and around Central that are home to thousands of tiny storefronts, vendors and markets.
Being often humid, there’s a damp and musty quality that underpins all the other smells that vary depending on where you are. Walk past the Man Ho Temple on Hollywood Road and the wafting smoke and incense will dominate. Join the throngs along busy Connaught Road and the smell of fumes from the many buses and cars will be obvious. Head towards the Star Ferry and you’ll smell the sea coupled with the deep diesel exhaust coming from the boats themselves.
For me, it’s walking through the street markets and up and down the alleys where the smells are the most evocative. The heat amplifies all the odors and acts like a blender making it hard to identify one particular scent over another. One minute you get a waft of ripe mango and bananas; the next it’s the pong of dried fish; and then the bloody smells emanating from the butcher or fishmonger.
Then there’s the stink of the slick, grimy streets themselves, which, before the clean-up crews arrive around 7am each day, are often littered with broken beer bottles and worse. This evidence of the night before’s heavy partying, especially around Lan Kwai Fong, adds yet another layer to the aromarama experience of Hong Kong.
One of my favorite spots on this recent trip, and in part for its smelliness, was the Gage Street Wet Market, also known as Graham Street market. Home to dozens and dozens of vendors, each stall has its distinct specialty: meat, fish (both live and dead), eggs, vegetables, nuts, tofu, noodles, cakes, dried fish, fermented vegetables, and so on.
This market has been here for over 170 years and sadly is under threat. Property is at a premium in Hong Kong and rather than preserve and upgrade what we in the West may deem to be historical treasures, the preferred way forward is often to tear down the old and throw up something mind-bogglingly tall and shiny in its place.
Gage Street Market is not a place for the faint of heart and not just because of its aroma. Taking in all the sights, smells and sounds, brought home to me how much time we spend in the West “sanitizing” the look and feel of our food so that it barely resembles the animal or plant it originated from. When we buy pre-packaged chicken breasts from the supermarket, even if they are free range, it’s easy to forget that chicken comes from a bird that has a head, beak and feet.
Here it’s all on display and every single part of the animal is eaten. Half a pig, head and feet still attached, is butchered right there on the slippery floor. An oxtail, complete with fur and wispy curls, hangs on the wall waiting for a customer. Heart, lungs, testicles and trotters, all hang from hooks. We even spot a disembodied fish tail still flapping on the chopping board it’s been cut so recently.
And there’s a veritable Pandora’s box of other food stuffs: freshly-made egg or rice noodles, homemade sweet treats like peanut brittle, and fermented vegetables in giant crock pots. One stall was dedicated purely to tofu prepared in different ways. This is where the real locals shop – on a daily basis – to make food at home. It’s obvious that the traditional diet is incredibly healthy: a small amount of protein, perhaps some rice, fermented vegetables and lots and lots of leafy greens: pea shoots, broccoli sprouts, spinach, Chinese kale. Obesity is not an obvious health problem.
The stalls are set up from around 7am and it all seems to wind down by around 6pm-ish. It’s fun to wander early in the morning before you have to elbow your way past trucks, determined, scowling Chinese ladies, hell-bent on getting their shopping done and the inevitable tourists, although they weren’t much in evidence.
If you want a reminder of what food really looks like and how it’s processed and handled before showing up in your kitchen, this is a great experience and I highly recommend it for kids who are more likely to be curious than squeamish.