By Duncan Gordon
Beijing is well-supplied with grocery stores. From anonymous Carrefour and Wal-Mart supermarket chains, to local fruit and vegetable shops that spill out onto the street. The most interesting places to do your weekly shopping, though, are the fresh produce markets dotted around the city. However, with the capital’s unyielding development, these throwbacks to a time before cellophane-wrapped cucumbers and ready-peeled onions are changing or vanishing.
Entering an indoor market near my office in the city centre’s Xicheng district a couple of months ago, I was on the end of a multi-pronged assault on the senses The stalls were a collage greens, reds, yellows and earthy colours; seemingly filled with every fruit and vegetable that can be grown in northern China. Along the perimeter of the room were other stalls; selling spices, condiments, noodles, various sizes and colours of eggs, raw meat, and freshly prepared snacks, including mouth-watering fried chicken. As I strolled around the room I was hit with different smells in succession. Garlic, chilli, tumeric, coriander, the clean aroma of fresh fruit and vegetables and the smell of raw meat hanging on butcher’s hooks. The soundtrack to this scene was the shouting of merchants advertising their goods and people’s chatter and bartering over a stall.
The sellers here buy their produce from huge wholesale markets located in Beijing’s sprawling outskirts. The prices are usually significantly cheaper than in supermarkets.
The indoor market in Xicheng:
In stark contrast to the anodyne, uniform aisles of international supermarkets, Beijing’s markets are chaotic, lively, and are places to socialise. Stall holders sit on stools overlooking their vegetables and chat to customers as they inspect what’s on offer. Grocery markets are usually housed in old and, to a greater or lesser degree, dilapidated buildings. That looks set to change one way or another.
Out with the old…
I went back to visit the same market near the office last week. It has been transformed. The outside of the building boasts a brand new red tiled façade and the plastic strip curtain doorway has been replaced by an actual swinging door. As I stepped into the room, I noticed the floor was covered in clean white tiles rather than muddy concrete and there seemed to be less vegetable stalls than before in the centre of the room. However, the meat, spices and snack stalls lining the perimeter were all still there, albeit with a spruced up look. A young butcher I spoke to said she was happy with the changes; she thinks that the market looks cleaner and better overall. It undoubtedly does look smarter, even if from a tourist’s perspective it has lost some of its old rustic charm.
The market post-renovation:
So why the changes? A vegetable seller explains that the government wants all of Beijing’s markets to meet a certain standard. It should be clear that the meat and vegetables come from a recognised source, so that health and safety standards can be imposed. There are some markets that do not meet that standard.
Previously I lived in a part of northeast Beijing’s Haidian district that lies outside the city’s fifth ring road. My bedroom window looked out onto a thriving outdoor vegetable market that was full of buyers and sellers from before dawn until after dusk seven days a week. The sellers came from outside the city and parked their pick-ups and trucks alongside each other. Some even arrived by mule-drawn cart. The backs of the trucks and open carts were used as display stalls for their produce. Suddenly in January 2016 that all stopped. I was no longer woken up at 4am by the vehicles arriving and hawkers shouting. The teachers at the middle school opposite the market suggested that it had been closed down because the government does not want those sorts of informal markets in Beijing anymore. Since then, the concrete expanse that was once home to its own lively community has lain empty.
The outdoor vegetable market in Haidian:
Back at the indoor market, the merchants were not at all worried that their market might succumb to the same fate as the one in Haidian. The butcher said that this market has just been renovated so clearly there is no intention to close it down. She said it is the markets that don’t get renovated which are in danger. If they don’t make the cut, they’re history.
As Beijing changes so to do its markets. Unfortunately those that do not fit with the government’s vision for the city or cannot keep up with developments will cease to operate. However, the renovations that have taken place at the Xicheng market show there is still political will to see them succeed. Grocery markets form an important part of many Beijing communities, sustain countless livelihoods, and are fascinating places for outsiders to explore. Long may they prosper.