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Kudos to Shanghai for organizing outdoor markets
By Doug Young

MANY cities on China’s mainland lack organized outdoor food centers and night markets, which are a colorful and popular part of daily life in places like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. But now that’s changing in Shanghai, which is rolling out ambitious plans for a series of such centers modeled on the famous Shilin night market in Taipei.

This kind of move seems long overdue, and could kill many birds with a single stone. Most importantly, it would help rid the streets of annoying hawkers and remove a source of noise and congestion that is irritating for nearby residents. It would also help with the problem of food safety, since concentrating such hawkers in supervised centers would make it easier to monitor their quality.

Equally important, such centers could provide a popular new type of attraction for both local residents and out-of-town visitors, giving them safe and fun places to sample many tasty flavors and local snacks from all over China.

More broadly, this campaign represents not only an attempt to bring more order to the colorful but often chaotic street vendor scene, but also reflects the city’s effort to improve the quality of life for local residents.

I can remember a time not long ago when the concept of “quality of life” would have drawn blank stares from nearly all Chinese, most of whom never bothered to complain about issues like noise and dirty conditions.

Shanghai opened the ninth night market in its new campaign earlier this month outside Jinjiang Amusement Park, instantly attracting huge crowds. The market was so popular that it drew more than 100,000 visitors in its first week alone, prompting complaints about heavy crowds and long lines. The market joins similar outdoor spots that have opened in areas like Qingpu and Jiading districts.

Observers may note that most of the new markets are in more outlying areas of Shanghai, since larger spaces are less available and rents are much higher in central locations like Huangpu and Jing’an districts. The same is true for the original Shilin night market in Taipei, which lies just outside the city center but is an easy half-hour subway trip from most downtown areas.

When I lived in Taipei, Shilin was always one of my favorite places to bring visiting friends, and was also a popular spot for trips on weekend nights. The place was famous for its local street food, most famously the oyster omelets featuring a mix of egg, sweet potato flour and, of course, oysters, topped with a gooey sweet sauce that I never quite developed a taste for.

I just returned from a trip to order-obsessed Singapore, where the city has taken a slightly different approach to outdoor eating by setting up hawker centers throughout the city. Those centers are mostly large, covered open-air spaces filled with dozens of vendors selling all kinds of Chinese and Southeast Asian food representing the city’s multi-ethnic population. On trips to Singapore, these centers are one of my favorite places to visit, both for their good food and also their casual and unique dining atmosphere.

Benefit to residents

I have to applaud Shanghai for its outdoor market experiment, which almost surely comes largely in response to residents’ complaints about the annoying, constant presence of hawkers on busy streets.

I remember living in Beijing in the 1980s when complaints about such nuisances would have been useless, since local officials paid little attention to this kind of issue.

I was frequently fascinated back then by how many older people could sleep even when there were many loud noises from traffic, construction and other outdoor activities in the background, which would have made it impossible for me to get any rest. When I asked how they could do it, they would often shrug and give the standard Chinese response, mei banfa, meaning “What can you do?”

Much has changed since those times, and police and public officials are far more responsive to residents’ concerns about noise from construction and congestion caused by annoying street vendors. But those same vendors do depend on hawking for their livelihood, and this kind of new night market will offer them a legal and low-rent way to keep earning money in a more controlled and sanitary environment.

I’m not a big fan of the term “win-win,” as it seems quite clichéd and overused. But that said, I do think these new night markets could represent a very strong win-win situation for everyone in Shanghai, and I applaud the city for its work and hope we’ll see more similar innovative efforts in the future.

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