The Wonderfully Manic Markets of Old Suzhou

The Wonderfully Manic Markets of Old Suzhou
By Patrick Donahue , eChinacities.com

Where can you go and see 20 colours of red peppers, have an anatomy lesson on pigs and taste fresh cooked local delicacies all in the same place? Try your local wet markets in Old Suzhou.  In spite of the incursion of multi-nationals such as Auchan, Metro, Carrefour and Wal-Mart, Suzhou still has a variety of colourful and lively local markets where old China is still very much alive.

1) Loumen Market 娄门菜市场 View In Map
Old Suzhou is a rectangle with the Grand Canal to the west and surrounded by the old moat. It was on these waterways that farmers and traders once brought their produce and wares to the city and through the gates to the markets. The best markets in town are still near the corners of the wall where the customs gates continue to guard the entrances. On the North West corner just north of the city zoo is Loumen Market just south of Loumen Lu. As with all the other markets, it doesn’t need to be signposted. As you approach the area you will begin to see farmers who came in from the outlying areas on their three wheelers loaded with the long beans, yams or cabbage, depending on the season, spilling out of boxes on the back. Further up, the walkways are squatted by weathered women with the ubiquitous square towel on their head, a remnant of their traditional blue head covering. They look up with their smiling faces and tout the beauty of the mushrooms laying in their woven baskets. The flow of people leads you to the main market area. In the covered markets you are hit by a Cesar salad of smells and a cacophony of sounds while your eyes adjust to the darkness.

No light is wasted lighting up the aisles between the stalls, which in a way is a blessing. Just walk carefully and don’t look down. All the electricity is focuses on reflecting the royal hues of purples in the eggplants, the brilliant reds of the peppers and what light is left over keeps the chicks warm before they are sold for rearing. Gone is the incessant boom of the patriotic music interspersed with useless cackles reminding the comrades not to spit in the market. Gone also are the crude concrete slabs. Now all the counters are tiled, as are the floors and half way up the walls. There are fewer live animals than their use to be. Refrigeration and packaged products have replaced some. But there are still the chickens, ducks, and pigeons calmly waiting to be grabbed by a householder, and within minutes the fowl’s throat is slit, with the blood drained into a plastic bottle cut in half. The bird is then boiled and plucked and the embarrassingly-naked carcass pressed up against the inside wall of the plastic bag is exchanged for a few kuai, and will be in the soup bowl – beak, feet and all – by 18:00. The fate of the aquatic faun is no better. Fish flop in their half filled basins with pumps gurgling up blood stained bubbles, turtles relentlessly climb their steep walled bowls, frogs twitch under nets, hairy crabs are tied up like macramé art and eels undulate in an orgy of dark, slimy bodies. Prized crickets have it better with their private basket suites and there is perhaps a dog or two if you look around who will indeed become hot dogs before they are served up Cantonese style.
Add: Loumen Lu, Pingjiang District, Suzhou
地址:苏州市平江区娄门路
Opening hours:06:00-20:00

2) Xi Er Lu Market  西二路南门菜场 View In Map
If you are looking to buy in large quantities, head to the Xi Er Lu Market at the corner of Dong Da Jie across from Pan Men Gate.  Look for all the mianbaoche (vans that look like a loaf of bread) backed in to the curb. This quarter is the domain of the restaurant supply traders. Here you can find ceramics, pots and pans, all types of kitchen tools and machines as well as the food to be put into them. The market is two blocks big with huge quantities of every product. They sell ‘em by the box but are happy to accept your retail business also.
Add: Xi Er Lu, Gucheng District, Suzhou
地址:苏州市古城区西二路
Opening hours: 06:00-20:00

3) Huan Jie Market  横街菜场 View In Map
My favourite market is on the southeast corner of Suzhou just outside the moat on Huan Jie and Moye Lu. There is the large covered market but the action outside on Huan Jie is the most interesting.  You can find winter quilts, the old fashion thermos jugs with the red peony, a hundred types of pickle vegetables, dripping golden brown duck hanging by their neck freshly extracted from the cookers, hand knitted gloves for 15 RMB, beautifully dressed sales girls flogging sheep inners, worn chopping blocks giving testimony to many executions, all accompanied by the sound of steam gushing out of steamers, old ladies hawking, gaudy children’s ride cranking out high pitched wails, bikes of all kinds jostling, clattering and ringing…and its all free for the experiencing.
Add: Heng Jie, Fengmen, Suzhou
地址:苏州葑门横街
Opening hours: 06:00-20:00

Local markets may go the same way as the bakers and butchers in France’s small towns, getting squeezed out by the multinational purveyors of packaged goods. Already the beautifully crafted bamboo steamers for the buns and the earthen bread ovens and hand crafted duck roasters are being tossed in favour of shiny, mass produced stainless steel, but for the time being the Suzhou market scene is all still very much “old China” and is very much alive.  Get out there and eat it up while it last!

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Keywords: Old Suzhou markets Suzhou’s best markets Suzhou Xi Er Lu Market Suzhou Loumen Market

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