Notes from Hong Kong: Temple Street Night Market
Say it with me: Temple Street Night Market.
It’s not a name, it’s an invocation. It’s not a place, it’s a world. It’s the brightest spark of the deepest night shining out in all directions, a compass rose that calls the faithful to prayer with the true north of twelve o’clock midnight. It’s elemental, a bagua of phoenix fire and djinn-soaked air, fish-fluid and scale-slippery yet as earthbound as Prometheus.
You start at the harbor and walk up Nathan Road, running the gauntlet of bright young Indian men hawking watches, purses, hashish and hedonism; past the respectable stores with open fronts and uniformed doormen, past the neverending news stands run by mummified great-grandmothers to a thousand generations, but the moment you hit Temple Street you’ll know you’re not anywhere else.
We’re between Temple Street Spicy Crab and the San Miguel Open Tavern, with uniformed waitresses beckoning us to sit for one beer, one beer, one beer for the gentlemen. Whole families sit over open-flame woks and card tables unfolded into impromptu leaves for the unexpected guests. The smell of sterno and spices fill the air, along with plastic Chinese flags strung between the apartment buildings looming to either side. Laundry hangs out of every habitable window alongside the ubiquitous window-mounted air conditioners, monuments to ancient structural architecture and the warping heat of this tropical island.
We pass our first policemen, serious young men in well-pressed blue shirts, talking in low tones with one of the vendors whose cigarette is ash and filter. We pass the Circle K, Moneygram, Tashafudhi, Ching Mai Records, Temple Beauty, Creation Jewelry, Golden Bauhina Jewelry, Avant Gold Jewelry, Palace Jewelry, Mastery Jewelry.
We detour down a side street in between produce stands. Lettuce, bok choi, whole ear corn, cauliflower, black brocolli, tomatoes and yams. A roadside shrine squats alongside, red and gold and piled with brass bowls of apples and oranges, tucked inconspicuously into the corner of the street, a holy fire hydrant for any passing dogs. The Thailand and Southeast Asia grocery stands full of tamarinds, tofu and spiked fruits. A tea shack sells crockery, loose-leaf tea, pots and porcelain, oddly delicate despite the bustle.
Back down the booths of tourist-bait – bags, waving lucky cats, mounted insects and music from pirate CD stations. There are t-shirts featuring Kurt Cobain, Christ, Mao and Adolf Hitler; something I haven’t seen marketed successfully back home. Axl Rose looking younger than he is on a Chinese Democracy tee which costs about as much as the album cost to record. Lingerie that looks like it came from Milwaukee’s Secret, mobile phone accessories and Mickey Mice, strains of Irish fiddle and tin whistle music coming from a softcore video store tucked behind two watch booths.
A pregnant woman dines on noodles, a police van sits outside Lee Kwong Lee China Wear. Foot Massages are offered for $88 HKD, around $11 American, with hotel outcalls available. A series of neon lights that scream Boystown at an unlabelled establishment, outside of which lounges a wiry bouncer in a Fighting 84th Division camo jacket. The buildings are covered in cracks and falling to pieces, the first four to eight floors of every one devoted to commerce while they’ve built the booths further into the street and the harpies hover in their one-room apartments overhead.
We’re in threatened by trucks and Maseratis at every corner, blinded by neon and a starless sky, the pregnant moon elbowed aside by air and light pollution. Ying Tea, Fat Sun, Wing Hing, Thai Pat, and Ren Nin Exchange make up a single office block, a bicycle parked alongside an abandoned mattress leans against the railing.
We pass booths hawking homeopathic hematite alongside double-headed dildos. We’re alongside the Temple in Temple Street now, straight into the fortune tellers’ section of the market. Tarot readers, face readers, feng shui consultants alongside Shanghai and Market Streets. Palmistry by Simon Chan, Master Joseph as featured on the media, Madame Tina set up in her tent outside the public toilets. Family fortune telling, accurate astrology by Vienna, numerology and Esther and Mary Ho, Ming the Little Woman Tarot Reader.
We’re warned against taking photos of the street performers by a gentleman wrapped in tattoos, not so much a figure of authority as a figure who might be packing. It’s all right, as the performers are not really anything to write home about, reminding me more than anything of my Aunt Bernice playing Rock Band circa 1958. The fortune tellers now keep tortoise shells on their tables outside the Yao Mi Tai Car Park and Government Offices. Uncle Uncanny offers to read our auras.
There’s Bombay food, Thai food, Tong Tai deep fried rabbit fish and pork intestines, young pao fried rice – a live crab whose eyestalks alone can move from side to side, trapped in bamboo-leaf bondage by the harsh mistress of hunger. Fried snails, raw snails, sea slug and live catfish swimming in styrofoam coolers. Cruelty to animals has never smelled so good, and we’re stopping here for dinner, sitting in the middle of the street next to a party of French women and across the way from a band of Chinese. They’re dining on fried prawns and chili noodles with a two-liter Haizhu beer, big enough for two but strong enough for one. We follow suit by ordering East Wind Blood Snails and a Clay Pot Rice with Short Ribs. Both are fantastic, the snails like escargot without garlic or butter. The sauce is spicy-sweet, tamarind and peanut.
Temple Street slows down when you sit down, no longer pushed and drawn. It’s nearly nine at night, seven A.M. back home and I’m eating street snails and drinking beer. My spare ribs are better than the Peking Duck I had for lunch atop Victoria Peak, crispy and burnt in all the right ways. It may be the best food I’ve had on a trip period.
It’s Monday Night and early. I can’t imagine midnight on a Friday.
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