Qingping Market
The sights and sounds of a Cantonese shopping street

from: room 510 Guangzhou youth hostel, Guangzhou, Guangdong.

Shamian Island, where our hostel is located, is where the French and English built many of their offices and residences after forcing a concession from the Chinese in the late 19th century. This former European enclave is filled with the architecture of London and Paris and crossed with tree lined streets and little parks that contribute to the island's sedate Sunday afternoon atmosphere. There are upscale hotels, sculpted flower beds and fine dining establishments bordering the wide cobbled streets and quiet walkways along the Pearl river where people saunter quietly beneath the trees and children gently peddle their tricycles. Just across the street and over the narrow canal from all this is Qingping (Bright Peace) Market. In a way that beautifully mirrors how that orderly little world the Europeans inhabited was just a tiny island in an exotic world, anyone walking across the bridge will be assaulted by hot and noisy China. Stepping into the first of the many alleys that make up this giant street market of 2000 stalls and 60 000 daily visitors, one is dropped into a sea of sensation.

Select an image to enlarge.

People sit on little stools in little doorways near towering bags of dried mushrooms; turtles of all shapes and sizes make little splashes as they try to climb atop one another in their little tanks; fuzzy puppies lie side by side atop their cages or all piled up and dozing in the sun inside them; piles of crabs stacked five or six high are tied with crude string, their legs neatly folded away; scrawny kittens in tiny cages are picked up and meow their tiny kitten meows of complaint while I study the customers to see if they seem to be looking for a pet or a snack; chunks of fish lie on wooden draining boards dripping blood ready to have another filet carved off; packets of vacuum-packed thinly sliced deer antler in dark or light varieties look sterile next to the dusty bags of tree bark; dried snake skins bundled and tied to a wall seem fragile and beautiful at once; small brown scorpions skitter and climb fruitlessly around the bottom of large plastic tubs oblivious to their cellmates being plucked away by chopsticks; live centipedes writhe around each other in an orgy of legs, dead ones are stick straight, dried and tied into bundles; albino toads peer through the glass at their pale neighbors the newts; all manner of tropical and fresh water fish in tank, tub or plastic bag swim back and forth wide eyed and skittish; an odd vinegar smell accompanies a huge up-ended bag of dead ants while the nearby pile turns out to be cockroaches; masses of dried grass and petals and twigs and leaves in open bags piled everywhere are waiting to be weighed and ground and steeped and made into poultices; live snakes lie silently piled and tangled at the bottom of a bucket apparently satisfied with who'll be on top, two of them are pulled out and quickly have both their heads cut off with a pair of scissors; fresh shellfish lie innocuously while next door sparrows looking broken and dirty are scooped up and weighed by the handful; the sharp smell of medicinal herbs and ginger in the air outside a room packed with roots; box turtles valiantly trying to muscle their way out of the net bags that hold them; ducks quack while chickens cluck; doves coo and geese honk; customers mutter and shake heads, answer cell phones; children shout and laugh and chase each other through the crammed streets, hair cropped close and faces smeared with food; vendors ruffle money and laugh and act and eat and clamor; puppies mewl and canaries titter while bubbles jet into tanks full of goldfish, carp or needle fish; scooters honk and bicycles brrring; adders and pythons stare out from jars of snake wine with wide mouthed screams and diners grin at each other across tiny rough tables.


All this swirls and washes around me, over me and through me. I attract no attention. I pass through snapping pictures, dodging people and riding waves of herb, spice, fish and blood smells through the jammed alleys and suddenly out into the wide colonial street that marks the north end of Qingping market. I'll enjoy the Colonial architecture when I get to Europe, for now I want more of China. I catch my breath, turn around and dive back in.

~ Nigel




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