As any traveler to Asia knows, the “night market” is the place to visit while traveling for amazing food, and for a taste of local life. I cannot imagine Hong Kong without its night markets.
To a newcomer from the U.S., it is a wholly new experience. We might have grown up with a “farmers’ market” — perhaps a great chance to meet some local farmers and crafters, and get fresh produce, but often it’s pretty limited – – just same-old vegetables on some bare-bones stands, or a handful of crates and cartons on the tail of a pickup, maybe a few baked goods and handicrafts, set up once-a-week in a village park, plaza, or parking lot. If you’re lucky, or in a bigger town, someone might make fried dough or doughnuts.
But in HK, a whole secondary city exists, popping up everywhere, every night, stalls with lots of lights and signs, selling everything, almost like a traveling carnival, open until midnight, then disappearing again by morning. Everywhere you turn you’ll encounter them — from the famous Temple Street market that takes up several city blocks, to Mong Kok’s Ladies’ Market, where anything (and I mean anything) can be purchased, legal or illegal. But of the many night markets, the one nearest and dearest to my heart is the Fu Tei Illegal night market.
Next to Lingnan University, Fu Tei is a huge housing estate – so big, it has its own postal district. Several times a week,a semi-legal night market would semi-magically appear in front of the estate’s small shopping mall.
And that is my single most quintessential image of Hong Kong: a shopping center with food stalls in front, teeming with people, saturated in cigarette smoke, and food smells wafting toward you through the humid air.
There were only a dozen food stalls in this particular night market, making it among the smallest. But this place was perfect. Despite their limited or nonexistent English, the cooks never messed up my order, and there was always good food for very little money. It cost more for me to get a bag of chips in the nearby Circle K, than it cost for a full meal at the night market.
I’d go three or four times a week to get my fix of spicy peanut noodles (dry) and my dumplings. Sometimes I’d get the soup noodles but they always found a way to make them too spicy, though still delicious.
The reason it is only semi-legal is that they are only allowed to operate certain times without a license, which most can’t afford. However, they would run the market every night of the week, crossing the line, and it wasn’t uncommon to have them pack up and run when a cop approached, though they wouldn’t be prosecuted and they always made sure everyone got what they wanted before leaving, making it the most relaxed illicit activity in the history of crime.
When I think of Hong Kong, five images come to mind, and most of them are the stereotypical images one would expect: the skyline, the harbor, the Big Buddha, the swarms of people. But that night market is always the fifth and possibly what I miss most about the city.
Westerners who have never been to Asia simply cannot understand the night market. It is a strange concept. The idea that random strangers, many toothless, missing limbs or sporting large wounds and dripping cigarette ashes into your food, are serving you random foods, that you cannot name, from a cart that isn’t even legally allowed to be there, does seems strange. But seven million customers can’t be wrong. The food is often better than what you’d get in a restaurant: cheap, in generous portions that are agreeable to a westerner, and wildly addictive.
The western business people and high rollers visiting Asia, they’ll go downtown in places like Hong Kong or Tokyo and drop five hundred dollars on a lobster that’s actually steeped in pollutants and glowing with radioactivity. But the high rollers of Hong Kong, along with the bottom-of-the-barrel types, all know that you go to the night market for the action.
Nothing says Hong Kong like seven steaming dumplings wrapped in paper, served with a box full of peanut noodles with random things on them that I still couldn’t identify to this day.
I miss it .