Inside a Chinese Wet Market

Chinese wet market in Shanghai

Chinese wet markets are large open markets where vendors sell fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat, unpackaged and unprocessed. Ever since the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was identified as an early source of the COVID-19 coronavirus, they’ve been vilified in the Western media. Numerous U.S. politicians and officials are calling for wet markets to be shut down. They’re portrayed as grimy, vile, places full of viruses and disease; seedy dens packed with suffering doe-eyed animals waiting to be slaughtered.

So, of course, I wanted to go see for myself.

Spoiler alert: it was great.

Finding a wet market

Here’s the thing about wet markets in Shanghai: they’re everywhere but hard to find.

There are tons of little groceries, crammed into narrow storefronts selling produce and whatnot. Sometimes they have plastic bins of shrimp or crab or eels that stink up the block. They still sell things by the 斤, (which I think is officially 500 grams). But these aren’t the sort of wet markets people are talking about.

Entrance to wet market in Shanghai
The entrance to the wet market.

I tried to look up something online, some blog listing “the 5 best wet markets in Shanghai.” But, development in Shanghai moves fast. The ones I tried to go to were long ago closed down, with cranes and men in hardhats replacing the fish and produce. Gentrification has already started accomplishing what Mike Pompeo could not.

I was almost ready to give up, thinking maybe I’d have to leave modern Shanghai and travel to some backwater village (population one million) to find an authentic Chinese wet market.

Luckily, the other day I was walking about a block from my apartment when I really had to pee.

The blue public restroom sign pointed down a long alley between sets of high rises. The alley was lined with some dumpling shops and stores selling household items. At the end of the alley, lo and behold, I found myself standing on the grey tile floors of a real live wet market.

Inside a Chinese wet market

The wet market was a large open room, somewhat run-down but reasonably clean. Strips of fluorescent lights ran along the concrete ceiling. Large white pillars held everything up. There were few flies, and the place sort of smelled like the inside of a refrigerator.

Coolers filled with pieces of meat lined one wall; beef, pork, lamb and chicken. Some of the coolers were obviously meant to be used for selling ice cream, but other than that, everything seemed on the level. No live pangolins or bats in sight.

man selling tomatoes in Shanghai wet market
Just look at this guy’s tomatoes!

We bought some tomatoes from a guy whose stall was literally overflowing with tomatoes. We also got a carrot, cucumber and a green pepper from a shy lady in another stall. The salad we had when we got home was excellent. Everything tasted very fresh, and it was incredibly cheap. Depending on the exchange rate, the cost of all our vegetables was around $1.50.

The other side of the market was a bit of a culture shock, to be honest. Big red crayfish crawled over each other in a big plastic bin. Live fish, and crabs swam around in big water-filled tubs. One vender had multicolored plastic bowls squirming with eels. A large fish swam in a clear glass tank next to a woman butchering its brother. Squid, octopus, and more lay on trays of ice. I felt weird taking pictures, since I wasn’t going to buy anything.

The bags of frogs were probably the weirdest thing we saw though. Yes, people eat frogs here. It’s actually not bad if it’s prepared right. Imagine bony meat with a flavor between fish and chicken.

It all seems totally fine to me

Now, I’m not a public health expert, but things looked fairly well put together. It’s a little weird seeing live seafood being sold, but you have to admit it’s hard to get any fresher than that. And that’s not something exclusive to wet markets.

Once we were walking through a local supermarket, where they also sell live seafood. A woman pointed to a fish in a tank, and the bored looking grocery store worker pulled it out and clubbed it for her. The fish writhed on the floor for a while, then the worker weighed it up, bagged it and handed it to the woman.

people shop for vegetables in a Chinese wet market.
There are so many fresh vegetables in the wet market.

It was a pretty shocking thing to see, to be honest. But, is that because it’s wrong, or because we’re just so far removed from where our food comes from in the West? After all, your Fillet-o-Fish sandwich was once swimming around somewhere too.

The general experience of the Chinese wet market reminded me of other markets I’d been to in South East Asia or Latin America. The markets in other places are massive, dark, and far less sanitary. The wet market in Shanghai was cleaner and far less claustrophobic than those in the more underdeveloped parts of the world.

In general, the people there were pretty friendly. You could tell they don’t see a lot of foreigners. We got a lot of stares, as happens in China when you venture beyond Shanghai’s expat enclaves. But, for the most part, people seemed pleasantly surprised to see us.

Dietary xenophobia

Of course, this is only my experience at one wet market. I don’t want to say that there are no markets in China that sell live wild animals. There probably are.

They’ve been showing public service announcements against eating wild animals for a while. Pangolins, specifically. And earlier this year, the government banned all trade in wild animals for food. Obviously, you can’t ban something if it doesn’t exist.

However, in the year and a half we’ve been here, I’ve yet to see any wild animal meat on the menu. Or dogs or cats for that matter. Again, China is huge, and there are probably some people eating those things. But it’s not all people, or even most people.

Take bull testicles, for example. Some Americans eat bull testicles. They’re called Rocky Mountain Oysters and they even have a festival in Montana. Does that mean it’s fair to stereotype all Americans as testicle eaters? 

All too often, food is used as weapon of cultural superiority. We want to feel oh so superior to those uncivilized people who eat frogs and whatever else. Sometimes diets aren’t better or worse, they’re just different.

The judgment sometimes goes both ways. While anti-racist protests were sweeping the U.S., one of the top comments on the Shanghai Reddit was an American who felt “donut shamed.”

Compare obesity rates between China and the U.S. In 2015 the U.S. had an obesity rate of 38.2 percent for people over 15 years old. In China, it was 7 percent. Maybe some diets are better than others.

Of course, I’m not defending eating wild animals here. I am, however, one hundred percent defending eating frogs.

Plastic tomatoes

And I am going to defend wet markets.

It was pretty amazing to get a whole bunch of fresh produce for less than $2.00. That’s a nice surprise for me, but I think pretty essential for the local people who on average make about $1,000 US dollars a month. That’s the average monthly salary in Shanghai, the biggest richest city in all of China.

Aldi tomatoes wrapped in plastic
It took about an hour to unwrap these damn tomatoes. And they weren’t even as good as the ones from the wet market.

Wet markets are also much more sustainable. There’s an Aldi just around the corner from our apartment. It was where we did most of our grocery shopping before we discovered the wet market. Every single piece of produce is wrapped in plastic. Part of our routine putting groceries away involves throwing out an armful of plastic. It’s the same in other supermarkets here.

They don’t wrap anything in the wet market. The vendors weigh it up and, yes, they do throw it in a plastic bag. But at least we can reuse that plastic bag for garbage or compost, rather than having to detangle a bunch of plastic wrap.

There are more arguments, probably made more eloquently than I can make them, in favor of wet markets here.

Again, most Chinese wet markets are fine

With all the global chaos caused by the Coronavirus epidemic, it’s understandable people want to place the blame somewhere. And it’s really easy to blame things we don’t understand. China’s wet markets seemed to be a perfect scapegoat. We already have plenty of stereotypes about the weird shit Asians eat, why not get some more stereotypes about where they buy them?

But, there’s now actually evidence that the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan might not have even been where the virus started.

Even if it was, a blanket shut down of all wet markets is kind of ridiculous. Of course, they should be regulated. As should any place selling food anywhere. But shutting them down entirely would be a sad loss.

The wet markets are not only a great place to buy cheap produce (and bags of frogs). They’re also a unique cultural experience that we don’t really have in the West and one that I’d highly recommend experiencing once the world opens up again.

I’m looking forward to venturing back for more fresh vegetables. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to buy some shrimp, or fish. Or maybe I’ll finally learn how to cook frog.

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