Shanghai’s Wet Markets

In the United States, meat is neatly packaged, clean, and always perfectly pink. Or at least that is what advertising tells us over and over again. We hardly ever see the live animal that we are eating, and most of us do not want to. With the exception of seafood, American consumers like their meat to look as unlike meat as possible. The antithesis of American meat-phobia is Shanghai’s wet markets.

For our Chinese Marketplace class with Professor Pan Tianshu, my group is investigating the idea of hygiene and freshness at Shanghai wet markets compared to American grocery stores. For freshness, we are interested in how long it takes for the meat to go from animal to food on a table.  For hygiene, we are interested in the cultural relativity of cleanliness and food preparation. To that end, we visited a local wet market with many stands of meat, vegetables, eggs, and fish. The food is plentiful and very different from markets in the United States.

In Shanghai, there are fruit stands on every corner, but the wet markets with meat a little less common. It is rare to see a foreigner visiting the wet market, but the markets are packed with locals in the early morning. The wet market is lined with little stands, which are often run by one or two family members. When visiting the wet market, one can easily find live chickens and fish, many different bird eggs, pork, beef, and most vegetables and fruits.

The first stand we visited was serving live fish in tubs of water on the street. There were several vats of water categorized by type of fish. Each shallow layer of water had a tube running from it, which presumably oxygenated the fish’s water. The fish would flop around and slowly swim on their sides in the tub. I suspect that the water was not completely oxygenated because the fish were very lethargic, which is good for the sellers but bad for the fish. At one point, a man drove up on a moped with a huge plastic bag strapped to the back. He parked next the vats, pulled the container off, and started filling a new tub with water. At that moment, we noticed that the bag was actually squirming slightly on the ground. After the tub was filled, he pulled the bag open and started dumping out the fish. Fish would rush out gasping for air, and most would plop down into the tub. A few escaped and flopped onto the street, but the man deftly caught any escaped fish. It was an interesting sight to watch, and it was certainly not one that you would find in the United States.

Another memorable point about the wet market is the perception of food safety. Although there is a grassroots movement against factory farming, most Americans assume their meat is safe and the animals are well treated. In reality, that often is not the case, but most Americans do not ever see or come in contact with the reality. In China, a shopper can exactly see how their meat was prepared. Fish are killed, descaled, and chopped on a small stool right near the shopper. Chopped meat is laid out on an outdoors table for hours with a fan to keep the flies away. Live chickens are crammed into small cages, or they sometimes even walk around the shop without any restraint. It is beneficial that Chinese consumers can see the status of their meat, but at the same time, some of the wet market conditions are rather unappealing. For example, the sight of loose chickens wandering around next to meat that has been in the sun all day would bother me. Of course, that is probably a result of my American background.

Food is always cultural, and the wet markets are great evidence of that fact. Visiting Shanghai wet markets is meaningful because they show that food does not have to be frozen and packaged like it is in the United States. In the United States, we are so distanced from the animals that provide our food, so it is great to see a wet market where the underlying fear of meat is not present.