UPROOTED: WET MARKETS & SOUTHEAST ASIAN MODERNIZATION
An elderly Cantonese woman steps cautiously onto the Metro Rail as the sun rises, reflecting light off the glass of a towering sky rise above. A young South Indian man wakes up with his morning ritual of teh tarik and begins marching three kilometers ahead, passing under the doorstep of ancient shophouses and the shimmering steel facade of a new bank along the way. A Malaysian mother rises early in the morning, hops on the motorbike with two young children in tote, driving over a new highway under construction but years from completion. The Cantonese woman has operated a dim sum restaurant for 37 years, the Indian man is gathering ingredients for his father’s Nasi Kandar establishment, the Malaysian mother plans to prepare a special dinner for her husband’s birthday. The destination for each is Chow Kit Market, the largest wet market still operating in Kuala Lumpur.
Their paths converge simultaneously at a large seafood stall. The Indian man made his morning rounds before determining and bartering for the best price for eight kilograms of mackerel, destined for lunch in just five hours. The Cantonese woman also spots the mackerel, seeking the perfect size for transforming into fish paste for a dim sum item, mackerel rolled with bean curd. The Malaysian woman eyes the same mackerel, her husband’s favorite fish. She’ll slave over the stove later in the afternoon to prepare curry and an assortment of side dishes for the celebration. The mackerel were caught the night before, delivered to a large supply center just outside of town, and purchased by the seafood stall owner in the very early morning hours. Their silvery skin shimmers, bodies still twitching, some still alive after being out of the sea for several hours.
The fish stall operator, Khong, questions himself as he begins filling the orders of each customer. He’s wondering if he bought enough mackerel for the hundreds of patrons that will pass by his stall today. He’s wondering if he should have bought 100 kilograms instead of the 80 he purchased, considering the unusually high early morning demand for the fresh mackerel. He’s wondering if he should raise his price to match a competitors stall across the alley. He brushes aside those concerns, deciding to wait to evaluate his strategy at the end of the day and make adjustments for tomorrow. The customers exchange pleasantries as they eagerly await their purchases, each with a busy day ahead.
Khong has bigger concerns. The market he used to serve was shut down to make way for a new stop on the Metro Rail, even though the line was not actually going to interfere with the operations there. Smaller markets have been ousted all over the city to make way for new hotels, shopping centers, banks, and office buildings. The operators are forced out of business or into more stiff competition with other stall owners in larger, more expensive wet markets. Khong could sell up to 150 kilograms of mackerel daily closer to his home, and for lower prices. Now he’s paying more to operate his business, charging customers more, and selling less fish. His story is echoed by thousands across all of Southeast Asia, demolished markets, operators and customers forced to move elsewhere, uprooting their way of life, changing the dynamics of their food culture.
The customers can choose to go to a supermarket complete with air conditioning, higher fixed prices, and products that have been sitting on the shelves for days. Or they can travel further, spend more money on transportation and barter for good prices, still knowing their money buys less at the wet market than it once did. Restaurants and food stall owners must increase prices or sacrifice quality and the potential loss of customers. They’re already worried about losing customers anyway, the new developments give large chain restaurants and supermarkets a distinct economic advantage with their endless supply chains that strengthen with each wet market closure. The price advantage gap that wet markets hold over supermarets is shrinking rapidly, as is the ability of local restaurants to compete with international chains. Younger generations are more likely to choose the supermarket over the wet market and KFC over dim sum, compounding the problem. Khong’s unsure how much longer he’ll be able to stay in business as rapid development continues to eradicate the wet markets, increasing the prominence of supermarkets and fast food establishments while losing younger demographics.
The closure of wet markets from Hong Kong to Hanoi, Bangkok to Bali, and Saigon to Singapore is a widespread issue mostly ignored by the governments of each country. The governments promote tourism, big business, and modernity while sacrificing communities, culture, and food quality. The consequences of closing these markets are severe and underestimated. Wet markets are an incredibly sensory sight to experience, unmatched by farmers markets of the West in terms of vibrance, diversity, size, price, and community impact. The wet market is directly responsible for the development and maintenance of the incredible food culture common in all Southeast Asian countries.
Without them, connection to food is lost, restaurant quality declines, prices increase, fast food and supermarket chains prosper, small businesses are displaced, and families are forced from their way of life. These vibrant markets, essential to Southeast Asian cuisine are increasingly shuttered because the multi-story shopping malls and office buildings are more financially lucrative. While there is enormous “profit” to be made, the economic costs associated with wet market closures are far more staggering. The amazing food culture of an entire region is in rapid decline. If this devastating trend continues, Southeast Asia is just a generation away from losing its identity as an international food mecca. What can be done to preserve these vital markets?