Wednesday evening

Britney Spears.

It’s when I hear her voice blasting over a vendor’s radio that I know I need to get out of here.  Past the soulless sellers pawning off their tawdry wares (“Hey! Hey, woman! Hey! Hey! You want Prada?”), past the tourists who watch everything with a mixture of bemusement and intrigue, past the colorful but blandly plastic merchandise heaped in disarray everywhere.  The obscene license plates (bilingual, because it’s Hong Kong, remember), the fake jade necklaces, the multi-themed (and at times barely intelligible – in English or otherwise) T-shirts, the bags, the clothes, the toys…even the low-lying international flags seem disjointed here, and I can’t tell if they actually promote HK’s “Asia’s World City” tagline or if they’re here just to complete the miserable scene.

At any rate, I’ve had enough.  Looking up at the apartment buildings – aged, but still alive, with laundry hanging from open windows – provides respite, but the music does not.  So I turn, leave, and wander off elsewhere.

Temple Street (廟街) is actively promoted by nearly every tour guide and travel book as a must-see place in Hong Kong, because it provides visitors with a (practical?) two-birds-one-stone deal: sight-see, and shop.  To tourists, this is beneficial – not necessarily for the pricing and quality, but rather because it’s conveniently located in Yau Ma Tei (油麻地, which translates into “sesame field”), hardly a stone’s throw from the more fashionable (and expensive) district of Tsim Sha Tsui (尖沙嘴), and even closer to the bustling, colorful, and just plain exciting Mong Kok (旺角).   (In fact, these three neighborhoods are part of the broader district of Yau Tsim Mong (油尖旺) – an “acronym” for their names.)  There’s actually a temple nearby – one of the many Tin Hau (天后) temples erected throughout HK – but you’ll find little beyond the plastic, lifeless postcards and the miniature fragile structures made of I-don’t-know-what.

I do not like it here.  Circumstance may have something to do with it – I’ve been in Hong Kong for little over a month now, and there are other markets that have been much more worthwhile to me – but the dominant feeling here is that Temple Street is, for all current intents and purposes, a tourist trap.

I could easily take the argument I raised in Sai Kung (西貢) and apply it here, praising these vendors for at least trying to make a living.  And yet at the same time, it’s Canal Street all over again – the aggressive pandering from shady characters (on both streets they hail from everywhere) for even shadier knock-offs and pirated items.  Even the ‘spicy crab stalls’ on the corners, tempting as they are, seem too aggressive to be of any particularly special quality.

Perhaps it’s a necessary experience, if only because it’s eye-opening to the masses who haven’t been to a place like this.  But now having roamed these two streets, I don’t enjoy it.

I leave just before Temple Street ends at its northern terminus and turn – somewhere, anywhere. Eventually I find my way onto Shanghai Street (上海街), a broader thoroughfare that runs parallel.  And right at the corner, thank goodness, is a small park…and, after a little searching, the Tin Hau Temple.

It looks like a fairly large incarnation, but this temple has already closed for the day.  So I keep walking.

Temple Street actually ‘continues’ north of the park (you’re not allowed to cross directly), so out of mild optimism I turn off of Shanghai and walk back on…to find more of the same.  Whatever.

Back onto Shanghai, where – slowly but surely – a more intriguing scene emerges.  This is Yau Ma Tei proper: multi-colored Chinese signage suspended over the street; individual shops and warehouses turning out more local goods (furniture, medicine, dried seafood, etc); traffic creating that steady drone to fill in the silence.

Silence.  It’s quiet here, although evening fast approaches.  It’s a Hong Kong quiet, of course – populated only by engines, construction, footfalls, and the occasional conversation.  But above all else, there’s the absence of a proper crowd, of masses fighting to cross the street – let alone move in any one direction on the sidewalk – of hawkers watching your every move and trying to bring you to their stalls.  In its own way, amidst the surrounding decay and age, Yau Ma Tei perpetuates a necessary silence at this hour.

That’s the primary feeling I have as I walk down Shanghai, until I decide to turn the corner and walk west, toward the waterfront.  And then I look.

This place, at the time, was difficult to describe, but a little research afterward revealed that this area – along Reclamation Street (新填地街) – is actually a fruit market, or rather a large collection of them.  More specifically, it’s the Yau Ma Tei Wholesale Fruit Market (油麻地果欄), which has been here for just about a full century (it was opened in 1913). It makes only slight sense in retrospect, I suppose, because most of the stalls had already closed for the day.

But as I stand at its edge and peer into the darkness of stalls beyond, I have no idea where this is.  It looks, quite honestly, like a shantytown.

Shantytown – the kind of term I’ve tended to associate with Hong Kong’s past (and only the darker spots of its present), but here it’s tough to find another delicate yet appropriate term.  Awnings hang low over small, cramped stalls (the ones that are still open) stocked with fruit of all kinds.  Colorful oranges, apples, cherries, tangerines all sit in cartons; half on display, the other half stored away.  Above them stand decaying but sturdy stone buildings with fading signage – much of which actually still stands from before WWII.

And there are still people here, too; these vendors, one would assume, live in the aging, low apartments that stand just behind their stalls.  Cars are parked in diagonal spaces.  Every now and then someone – a stall owner, a security guard, or even another visitor like myself – will peer into the dark spaces and enter.  Conversations are few and far between, but they’re audible.  If nothing else, it is, in its own fascinating way, quiet and peaceful.

The knowledge that I now have of this place being a (still-running) wholesale fruit market certainly does a lot to diffuse the hesitancy I had when I first stepped here.  And yet at the same time, this place (on the brink of evening, at least) still carries an air of mystery.  Not quite the layering of enigmas one has heard elsewhere; instead, there is the feeling that a history lies open before me.  It could be someone’s history; it could be everyone’s history.  The age of this façade, and the presence of people who continue to live and work here, certainly has its echoes in other places I’ve visited – but here, just off the center and the western edge of Kowloon, just next to two night-friendly districts, it takes on its own wonder and beauty.

I’m a bit hesitant to describe it – and the rest of Yau Ma Tei – this way, because circumstance (it’s getting dark) and reality (these stalls are done for the day) do not create the most accurate (i.e. neutral) of views.  In my mind, there is little, if anything, to be admired in the state of poverty; I doubt that there are people anywhere who – with the possible exception of those who wish to seek spirituality or higher meaning – aspire to  live under such conditions.  But here, as is the case elsewhere, locals have adapted the best they can.  From the moment these stalls open to the moment they close, everything proceeds as usual: the exchange of fruit, gossip, and prices; the daily ritual as it aligns with the cycle of night and day; the passage of people into and out of the market – because this is still a market; the conversations (public and private) between the past and the present.

Conversations between history and modernity.  They may be solemn here in Yau Ma Tei, but they can be heard.  Between the stalls selling knock-offs, between the decaying buildings, between the fruit vendors, between the trees in the park.

The past is still alive here.

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