Traditional wet markets, once a dominant feature of daily life in Shanghai, have suffered in recent years from an image of dingy, cramped places where prices might be cheap but food safety was questionable. No more.
The old markets are undergoing a transformation to make them cleaner, safer and more modern.
A wander around the newly renovated Zhenru-Gaoling Market in Putuo District suggests the change is having a positive impact. Fathers hoist children up into their arms as they browse through shops selling ready-to-eat food for dinner. Mothers call for children running from one snack stall to the next to slow down.
“I’m here with my grandma,” a youngster wearing a school uniform told Shanghai Daily, pointing at the elderly woman behind her at a purchase counter. “She picks me up from school, and we come here to get ingredients for dinner. Sometimes, I also get to pick a snack to buy!”
Gone are the days when the shouts of vendors and loud haggling with shoppers created the morning din at markets. The scene today is more sedate but also more exciting.
Wet markets had to adapt. Their appeal was mainly limited to the older generation, used to shopping every morning for fresh ingredients for the day’s meals. The younger generation, by contrast, veered to modern supermarkets and electronic grocery and food delivery apps for their meals.
Many traditional wet markets have suffered from a lack of amenities such as parking lots and had poor management systems that failed to guarantee health and food safety.
It was hard to compete with online grocery apps, which enjoyed a surge of business during the coronavirus pandemic and home lockdown period. China’s COVID-19 outbreak at a seafood market in Wuhan made the public doubly wary about wet markets.
To meet the challenge, traditional wet markets are shedding their old image for a newer, more modern look. They are integrating other functions, like snack bars, coffee shops and even community centers, to attract customers of all ages.
In short, they are more than wet markets. Some might call them bazaars.
Among the changes, Wanyou Market opened in the Pudong New Area early in 2017. In Huangpu District, the Taikang, Yongnian and Mengxi markets were renovated last year by Julu Co.
Gaoling market, one of the largest of its kind in Shanghai, includes a wet market and food court. Upstairs are several community centers.
“I brought her to the old market a couple times,” the aforementioned grandmother told Shanghai Daily. “She used to wait for me by the gate because she had no interest in vegetables. Now, there are all kinds of snacks to entice her. She likes coming here nowadays.”
Before being shut for renovations in March 2019, Gaoling had hundreds of independent vendors offering a variety of produce and services.
“As wet markets developed over time, both the supply and the demand sides have changed,” said Jiang Ping, a manager at the market told Jiefang Daily.
Whereas prices alone used to determine shopper numbers, other factors have now emerged, she said, citing value for money, diversity of choices and the market environment.
Jiang and her team spent over a year designing and building this multifunctional bazaar. Its classy design incorporates many elements of historical Shanghai architecture, blending the traditional with the modern.
About 50 percent of the vendors from the old wet market have returned to mix with new shops. Visitors have the choice of over 100 individual vegetable stalls, and there are 12 time-honored local snack brands, including household names such as Shen Da Cheng and Gong De Lin, selling in the food court.
Customers are welcome to use the second-floor community areas — from a fitness center and a performance hall to a community dining room.
Zhang Shaochun, Party secretary of Zhenru Town Subdistrict where the market is located, emphasized the desire to improve community life for local residents in an earlier interview.
“By combining commercial business and community service into a single facility, everything can be done with a single trip,” he said. “This has brought true convenience to people.”
Zhenru’s elderly population, which comprises 40 percent of the local population, can have both their material and social needs met with a day spent at the bazaar, added Zhang.
Most of Gaoling market’s second-floor recreation centers have remained open despite the current reoccurrence of the coronavirus in Beijing. However, only the fitness center, performance hall and a barbershop are reporting business as usual.
Public health and safety is the watchword of the new-look wet markets. Maintenance staff have been increased to ensure that market floors remain clean and dry.
At Gaoling market, beyond routine quality checks by supervisors, screens have been installed above each stall to show prices of the produce being sold, along with the names, picture IDs and license numbers of each individual vendor.
“It shows that we’re professional,” one vendor told Shanghai Daily. “Customers can feel more reassured shopping here.”
Notably, the upgrade has come at a price.
“Produce prices are higher than they used to be,” said a man who has switched to do most of his shopping at a smaller neighborhood market. “I usually come to Gaoling market only for meat and fish. Prices aren’t ideal, but at least the quality is assured.”
While higher prices may deter some shoppers, others are attracted by the wider choices, just as Jiang predicted.
“I’ve been coming here more often since it was renovated,” said one shopper, noting the abundance of snacks and cooked foods. “It’s close to home, and the quality of products is impeccable. I think it’s worth the money.”
By comparison, prices for certain products at the renovated Taikang Market in Huangpu District actually dropped after its revamp. That is due to a government subsidy, allowing vendors to provide five fresh vegetables a day at below-average prices.
Vendors at both markets said the cost of a stall has increased.
“Rent is more expensive because a better facility is more expensive to maintain,” said a vendor at Gaoling market. “Higher rents mean higher prices. It’s unavoidable.”
While Gaoling market did experience a drop in vegetable sales during the toughest months of the pandemic, numbers began bouncing back in April. In recent months, there has been a 30 percent growth in the number of visitors and 20 percent average growth in vendor profits.
The market, unlike some of the other renovated markets, is located outside the hubbub of downtown Shanghai. While it offers plenty of parking space, the commute can be somewhat inconvenient for those who live outside the local area.
However, that doesn’t seem to have deterred visitors from other parts of Shanghai. Young people especially are showing up in greater numbers, attracted by the sleek surroundings and interesting mix of products and services.
“The beautiful vintage decor and nice, clean environment are what really attracted me,” said a visitor surnamed Xu, who is in her 20s and came to the bazaar during the recent Dragon Boat Festival holiday.
She said the market has become a hit online as a photogenic spot with good food.
“Many of the snack brands you find here are so representative of Shanghai,” she said.
Another first-time visitor who identified himself only as Han praised the environment of the market.
“The people in this neighborhood are blessed to have such a nice market for their everyday needs,” he said.