The word “wet mar­ket” was just added to the Ox­ford English Dic­tionary. But why are they called “wet mar­kets”?

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This is one of those answers that is to­tally straight­for­ward: Be­cause of all the mois­ture. Be­cause of the wa­ter spritzed on veg­eta­bles to keep them look­ing fresh, be­cause of the tanks hold­ing the fresh fish, be­cause of the stalls which are hosed down at the end of a long day, scrubbed out to make way for the next day’s goods.

In Can­tonese wet goods, “sup for” ( ), means

“fresh pro­duce”—as op­posed to dry goods, “gon for”

( ), which en­tails ev­ery­thing from tinned goods to sweets to dried fish and Chi­nese herbs. A wet mar­ket spe­cial­izes in fresh pro­duce, al­though of course in prac­tice the dis­tinc­tion, es­pe­cially in street­side mar­kets, is rather less fine.

Hong Kong’s wet mar­kets arose from China’s agrar­ian so­ci­ety. Farm­ers would be largely self-suf­fi­cient, but for the goods they couldn’t grow or make them­selves, they’d have to barter for them: Hence the rise of mar­ket days, when the coun­try­side would come to­gether to buy what they needed, or trade away their ex­cess. There are records of one of these “pe­ri­odic mar­kets” in Yuen Long as early as the 1500s.

As Hongkongers moved away from farm­ing and into more spe­cial­ized trades, the mar­kets be­came per­ma­nent. They be­gan to oc­cupy of­fi­cial build­ings as well as streets— and the city’s first of­fi­cial wet mar­ket is also its most tragic.

A Cen­tral Mar­ket of some kind stood in the same spot since 1842, sand­wiched in-be­tween Ju­bilee and Queen Vic­to­ria Streets in Cen­tral. Once a grand Vic­to­rian struc­ture, the build­ing is now in at least its third it­er­a­tion: A less at­trac­tive Bauhaus edifice built in 1938. But in its hey­day, the Cen­tral Mar­ket was the big­gest meat mar­ket in South­east Asia—a nexus for the en­tire city’s next meal (less glam­orously, – Wet Wally it also hosted the first fe­male pub­lic toi­let in Hong Kong).

But as times moved on, wet mar­kets sprang up closer to res­i­den­tial ar­eas and su­per­mar­kets rose to promi­nence. Cen­tral Mar­ket fell out of fa­vor, and was fi­nally closed for good in 2003. These days one nar­row sec­tion of the mar­ket serves as the Link Al­ley, that ugly bit we walk through be­tween IFC and the Cen­tral Mid-Lev­els Es­ca­la­tor.

The glory days of the mar­ket are long past. Re­vi­tal­iza­tion projects are of­ten mooted, but noth­ing much has been done for more than a decade. A promis­ing “float­ing oa­sis” de­sign fell apart. A new cheaper plan was fi­nally ap­proved in March this year, with a pro­jected com­ple­tion date of 2020.

It’s a poor le­gacy for a build­ing that was once the city’s lifeblood. But per­haps that’s the in­evitable fate of the wet mar­ket: Washed out at the end of the day, scrubbed away to make way for the next day’s goods.

The sec­ond it­er­a­tion of the Cen­tral Mar­ket, built in 1895

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