Just When You Think You Have Everything…

Bejeweled mounds of veg

When I hopped into the van today with the other teachers, I never expected the multi-sensory experience which are the markets of Shanghai.

America really isn’t a market country unless you add the word “super” in front of the word. Farmers’ markets aren’t even comparable to what I’ve seen in China.

Corner view – veg and fruit

Markets in Europe were fairly benign. I bartered for scarves in Rome, and I bought loads of fruit and veg at the Gloucester Green market on Wednesdays in Oxford. The Covered Market came a bit closer, with permanent shops for flowers, baked goods, and produce. Possibly a butcher too. But this is markets on steroids. Or a lot of Red Bull.

Aerial shot from the 2nd Floor
I thought Carrefour was a market-type experience, but it’s like the Beginner’s Primer to Market Shopping in China. You don’t barter for prices, and you tend to pick your own produce to get it weighed by the veggie-weighers. This does eliminate a lot of time spent in line at the store when the cashier can’t either figure out what’s in the bag (I once had an incident with a rutabaga at Super Walmart) or s/he types in the wrong numbers so you’re charged for stuff you didn’t buy (green apples were $90 for two of them at Woodman’s when she put in the wrong key). But the produce isn’t all that fabulous and tends to be in the slightly overripe phase, which means it won’t last long.

Enter the wet market.

Sunday morning shoppers

The first level was almost entirely all veg and fruit, which is separated by baskets of type. Enormous, opal daikon radishes.  Plump, orange carrots. Multiple varieties of fungi in shades of white, brown, and black. Absolutely huge squash. Dual-toned figs. Fragrant leeks. Already skinned onions. Deep purple peppers. Jewel-like eggplants. Glistening ruby pomegranates. Fat, golden mangos. Freshly roasted chestnuts. Emerald and ivory bok choy. Garnet-hued Thai peppers. Topaz jewels of tomatoes. Crisp, juicy apples. It’s a bejeweled selection of produce. If you love colors, if you love to cook, if you love fresh food – the wet market is sensory overload.

Eggs, mostly quail and chicken

There was an egg-seller as well, and I want to go back simply for the quail’s eggs. And, these eggs were so fresh I swear they were warm still from the chicken. Eggs here aren’t refrigerated, and you do have to be careful when cracking them – they aren’t checked for baby chicks. So, if you’re making a cake, crack eggs into a separate bowl, just in case.

Yes, these are fresh eels in bowls.
Looking down at the myriad of food stalls

So, what’s the wet part? Oh, that would be the extremely fresh (read: still swimming, croaking, flapping) seafood. Eels sliding around in buckets. Frogs poking their curious heads above water, perhaps for the final time. Fish looking rather bleary-eyed at the people staring back at them. Clams, mussels, and abalone chillin’ like villains in their aquariums. Lobsters redder than anything at Red Lobster. Crabs thinking, “oh heck, am I next?” as their friends are plucked one by one from the bucket. Very wet and squishy in there. And if you don’t want to kill whatever you’ve just bought, they will gladly oblige you in that. Speak quickly and carry a huge knife.

Beef: It’s what’s for dinner!
Make your own stir-fry stall
Wet marker vendor with veg 
If seafood freaks you out, then wander over to the best little soup dumpling stand in Shanghai or to the butchers. I enjoy the huge racks of ribs hanging out over the stands, but I have to say, the guy has gorgeously lean cuts of beef – if you can stand the large cow tongues right next to the chuck roasts. If beef is what isn’t for dinner, there is plenty of pork and chicken to go around. I could have any pig’s leg or pig’s snout I wanted. There are more innocuous cuts of meat, surely, but these happen to capture my interest the most. As for chicken, there are plenty of whole chickens freshly killed and plucked, ducks, and the like fowl – guinea hen, Cornish hen, you know. If you’re in to chewing on the chicken legs, those are easy to find too.
If you’re squirming while reading this and have decided to go vegetarian after all, perhaps you can pop by the tofu bar, the stir-fry bar, or bread bar. All freshly-cooked to order dishes. Tasty, too, I imagine. There’s a shop full of freshly-shelled nuts. A spice shop. A loose-leaf tea shop. A market for every little thing you might need.

Nanpu Bridge

Upstairs are little clothing and shoe shops where you can get handmade items. One woman makes these gorgeously soft cashmere sweaters, dresses, hoodies – what have you. I may have her make me a sweater dress later in the winter. She has all colors of the rainbow plus a huge booklet of style ideas. You can add sequins, ribbons, and beads as well. The cobbler next door makes beautiful leather shoes in any style you can bring a copy or a picture of – I am planning on having him make me brown leather boots for school and ballet-style shoes in dark royal blue. He visits the school to deliver shoes to other teachers, so I am going to show him what I like, work out a price, and have him measure everything on my big foot so they are made to perfection. Cobbler work is a dying art, but the shoes in his shop were beautiful quality.

A growing and stretching city: Oriental
Pearl Tower and a new skyscraper,
one set to dwarf any other tower in
Shanghai, surging upwards (right).

After taking care of my produce needs for the week, we ventured over to a textile market all the way on the other side of the city. I was able to snap up pictures of the beautiful magenta Oriental Pearl Tower as we drove on the Nanpu Bridge.

Ginormous textile market

Now, the textile market. Imagine a huge, three-level, ten entrance warehouse building. Now, imagine hundreds upon hundreds of tiny shops packed inside. Jewelry, scarves, watches, hair accessories, garden art, kitchenwares, paintings, bed linens, storage containers, baskets, fabric stores where you can get handmade clothes, yarn shops, luggage, tobacco, purses, school supplies, wedding dresses, formal gowns, carpets, rugs, furniture, fabric flowers, lace and ribbon, Chinese home decorations, and on, and on, and on. So much to take in while you wander corridor upon corridor of shops, a twisting, winding mess of places that seem to have no rhyme or reason as to their content. People hawking goods like stock market investors.

Literally, aisle after aisle of shops – for three floors!

Ribbon, button, and lace stall
You can be fashionable in fleece!

In the market, you must test your bargaining and Chinese number skills. If all else fails, use your number hand signals. But, I was able to figure out most of the totals if the seller told me it slowly. At the wet market, I totally screwed up and “took one for the team” when the merchant, who was really, really nice, tried to tell me that I wasn’t giving him enough when I handed him 2 kuai. I thought the scale said 2 kuai, not realizing it was 2 kuai per gram. So, a total of 17.40 kuai for the entire purchase (which was a large acorn squash and, I believe, about 10 figs). Duh. He was so patient. And, we both laughed when I finally figured out the total, and he got his money. I’m sure everyone laughed when we walked away – or started laughing before we even left…

My personal favorite is the magenta
pink velvet fainting couch in the back.

Beautiful handmade lace dress

Mingpian. That means “card.” Business cards are extremely useful bits of paper when you’re trying to find your favorite little shop or merchant in one of the huge markets. If you like the seller or the seller’s products, you ask for a card. In general, I write quoted prices on the cards as well so I have some standard of comparison as I go from shop to shop. There isn’t ever just one shop, of course, for that item. There are MANY shops which carry the same item. So, you have to bargain, counter-bargain, and finally, and hopefully, agree on a price. If you like the item, it is hard to walk away, but often that’s what needs to happen if the price is still too high. That is a skill in progress, my friends.

Success at the wet market!
On the wall of a bridal shop.
Frightening, yes.

But, after all the browsing, I was able to walk away with a huge landscape portrait in black, white, and red of London, which I happen to love. My apartment is going to end up being very Euro-Asian – Chinese-inspired furniture with European prints. I would like to get some black-and-white prints made of some of my pictures so I can hang those up in the guest bedroom. All in due course.

My London picture from the market

With a stop at Metro – a Sam’s Club-esque store – and several pounds of coffee later (you buy coffee at good prices when you see it), I was home to scrub and wash all my produce and figure out where to put things. Luckily, I already had two screws in the wall, so I tucked the London print on the wall, and now I’m happy that I have something to make the place seem cozier.

Like a home.

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