Fresh Food Markets and Public Health

I was recently doing some research for a project on HK wet markets. For those not from Asia, these are like farmers markets, except the food is purchased mostly from the wholesale market rather than trucked into the market by the farmers themselves. In Hong Kong, this is largely because most of what was once farm land is now new towns and high rise housing.  Food in the markets is fresh. Sellers buy the food each morning from one of the wholesale markets such as the one at Ya Ma Tae. The sellers can either be hawkers, selling on the street, or market sellers, who are located in a purpose built space, which have been run, until recently by the HK Food and Environmental Hygiene department. Despite their importance in the nutritional landscape of Hong Kong, they are not so prominently placed in the economic landscape. 

Markets are, and pretty much always have been largely viewed by those governing Hong Kong as a necessary evil.  Indeed, the markets were designed and built to be containers for the nuisance of the street vendors. In their construction, little effort was made to accomodate the preferences of shoppers and market traders.  Uninteresting concrete blocks, the buildings are dark, hot containers that diminish and hide away the vibrancy and liveliness of the food an the people contained within. Their social construction is as uninviting. Narrated as dirty, smelly and low class, they are seen as backward food spaces in a city that is ever seeking to be looking forward. and as such they are not particularly hospitable. Chris DeWolf of UrbanPhoto, paints a picture of decline in the fortunes of the wet markets. He says: 

Chain supermarkets Wellcome and Park’n’Shop now control more than 70 percent of the grocery sector, while the number of independent grocery stores and wet market stalls has declined by more than half since 1996. 

Indeed there are markets that are dying. An example is the Sheung Wan market.  Here one finds sleeping stall holders, empty spaces, filth, smell and decline.  Only a few shoppers and sellers interact.

Graham Street MarketYet the markets and their possibly more successful and certainly more aesthetically appealing sisters, the hawker bazaars, persist in Hong Kong, although their vibrancy is geographically variable.  Markets which remain lively places include Shatin, Tai Wai, Graham street, and Bowrington Road.  The market in Kowloon City has recently gained a reputation as a place to spot local celebrities, and while often less busy that the previously mentioned markets, is still a dynamic and viable place.

These are the spaces where the elderly and the poor, the maids, some of the cities restaurants and, occasionally, an adventurous subset of the middle class and tourists buy their food. A 2005 study funded by the Hong Kong SAR found that over half a million people each day shop in the 79 purpose built and countless number of informal markets that pepper the SAR.  Thus while largely overlooked, the wet markets are important sites of connection and disconnection in the cultural economy of this global city.

Until the late 1990’s Hong Kong was not supermarketized, but in recent years this has changed considerably.Coincident with the rise of the supermarket in Hong Kong has also been a rise in obesity, particularly among children. In 2000 the obesity rate for children was just 16%. Today, as supermarkets have expanded, the rate is over 20%. Health researchers put this down to a more sedentary lifestyle, and a change in diet to foods higher in fat and preservatives. Experience from the west tells us that supermarket layout coupled with the fact that you can get more profit from foods that are processed in some way or other has contributed to declines in the consumption of fresh food.

There is still a vibrant landscape of fresh food provision in Hong Kong but this is under threat from the production of a culture that is always forward looking and the recent privatisation of the market spaces. Without concerted intervention, I believe this spells the eventual end to formal market trading as the profit motive of real estate investment will drive the gentrification of the spaces into purposes other than fresh food trading. In this loss, we will also see a continued move toward a decline in diet related public health.

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Sadly Graham Street Market, one of the more vibrant and socially inclusive markets in Hong Kong, is currently being dismantled by the SAR and its property interests to be replaced by a shopping mall and a high rise office and apartment complex.  You can read more about it in this post:  Stifling Street Life: The demise of the Graham Street Market.

How to reference this post

Blake, M (2013) Fresh Food Markets and Public Health. ‎ ‎15 March 2013 (Accessed: insert date accessed here)

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