One Night Stand at the Shanghai Vegetable Wholesale Market

It's one in the morning and I'm speeding through the darkened outer suburbs of Shanghai, the streets peopled only by an occasional late night food stall beside the road. Mostly, the city is deserted and the sparse street lamps throw pools of pale orange light onto the blackness of the road. The elevated highway looms large and heavy alongside us. My taxi driver can't quite believe his good luck because he's been sitting waiting for a customer for nearly an hour before I came along with a fare worth the equivalent of two airport runs.

I'm on my way to uncover the inside story on one of Shanghai's biggest wholesale fruit and vegetable markets, something I've been thinking about ever since I met and photographed the vegetable vendors at my favourite wet market on Jianguo Lu

What I hadn't reckoned on was that these wholesale markets are like a secret society, closed to the general public and operating only in the darkest hours before dawn, by all accounts quite unsuitable places for foreign women with too much curiosity and a camera. Which of course made me want to go even more.

Living in a city with a population larger than that of many small countries poses unique food supply and distribution problems. Exactly how do you get fresh vegetables every single day to 23 million people? I want to know. To that end, I've already met the farmers and the vegetable sellers but I felt like a link in the chain from farm to plate was missing without meeting and knowing about those elusive middle men, the wholesalers. 

Promises by various people over several weeks to get me inside a wholesale market had all come to nothing. Last week I thought I had a watertight agreement with one vegetable vendor allowing me to accompany her on her nightly run to the market, until her husband discovered a foreigner (me) was involved and the exchange of a large sum of money (my money) suddenly became necessary, the sum quadrupling over several days until I politely declined being thoroughly fleeced by the pair of them. Disappointing, but it takes a lot more than a pair of ruthlessly entrepreneurial vegetable sellers to put me off.

But at last I'm on my way now, sitting bleary-eyed in the taxi with my number one negotiator and Chinese friend JW, who has talked her own local vegetable guy into helping us. Our man on the inside, Mr Liu, is going to meet us near the market at 2am, along with JW's husband who is 'bringing us snacks' on the pretext of making sure we don't get into any trouble amongst the late night cabbages. This feels a bit over-protective, but I don't say anything because he probably knows a lot more about these places than I do.

Our rendezvous is a dark stretch without street lights beneath a hulking concrete overpass, the ground littered with paper and plastic bags. A group of men huddled together nearby eye us suspiciously as we step out of the taxi and suddenly I'm really pleased JW's husband is coming too, as the reality of  the two-women-alone/city-fringes/middle-of-the-night scenario I've got myself into hits home.

Inside the market it's now 2am but there are scant signs of anything happening other than a dog standing stiffly to attention at the sight of a man arriving to uncover his stall. Rows upon rows of stalls like this cover an area of more than three acres inside giant open-sided sheds, vegetables at one end of the lot, fruit in the centre, and meat and other goods at the far end.

Mr Liu, a wiry man in his early forties with an impressive economy of speech (well, it is the middle of the night), arrives at last in his empty tricycle trayback. In three hours it will be loaded sky high with his daily haul of vegetables and fruits he'll take back to his local wet market to sell, finally finishing work at 6pm after a 1am start, seven days a week.

He tells us the vegetable section of the market opens first around 2.30am, followed by the fruit then meat and fish sections in turn. It's important to be there early to get the best choice of produce and price, and asks respectfully but pragmatically if we can show no indication of knowing him in case it affects the prices he is quoted, but otherwise says we're free to wander around.

Soon enough, the vegetable aisles spring into life. Tricycles arrive from every direction, loading and unloading boxes and sacks, and the noise levels rise as wholesalers spy their regulars amongst the growing crowds, banter flying back and forth. 

As I pick my way between the baskets of beautiful, concentrically arranged bok choy I get shoved and jostled in all directions, and frequently yelled at. I seem to be skilled at stepping out of one person's way and straight into someone else's path, usually someone carrying a heavy load of vegetables and a bad attitude.

Still, it's tough work being awake while everyone else sleeps - the wholesalers have dark circles under their puffy eyes and probably carry years of sleep deprivation. Some seem good-humoured enough and I ask a few questions - where the produce comes from, the daily prices and so on. 

Almost all of the vegetables have been grown within a small radius of Shanghai, which would explain the similarity of produce from stall to stall and the lack of 'exotics' like avocados or out-of-season produce. They tell me those items can be bought at a different wholesale market nearby and I file this information away for future reference. JW raises her eyebrows at me.

Just as I'm about to take a photograph of another group of men sitting on boxes and apparently joking together, JW pulls on my arm and says urgently under her breath 'Don't do it. I just realised they're from Shanxi.' 

I'm not really sure what that means, but JW says many of the wholesalers are not Shanghainese, having come from other provinces to the big smoke to make their fortune in the cut-throat vegetable business. 

'Those guys from Shanxi, and also from Hebei...' she explains, 'they're kind of....hotheads and will maybe give you big trouble...'

At 3am trouble with gangs of men from Shanxi is the sort of trouble I can do without, thanks all the same. They're probably just overtired.

We retreat to the relative peace of the cabbage aisle, where a fist fight is breaking out over the price of some lovely ox-heart cabbages. Nearby a woman with a very sharp knife slices the tough outer leaves from the cabbage, but because she's wearing pearls I figure she won't turn the knife on me if I ask a few more questions. She continues to slice furiously as I ask away and I discover the minimum purchase is one box or sack of anything, and today's cabbage price is 8 mao (5 cents) each. Worth fighting for. 

Intermittently we run into Mr Liu as he slowly fills the tricycle tray, then arranges layers of sacks on top. While we wait for him to finish buying we explore the water goods section, which at 4am has just opened for trading.

Enormous blue plastic tubs are filled with seaweed, brined bamboo shoots, and growing bean sprouts.  The floor is awash with water because an entire tank full of fish has been emptied onto the tiled floor while four people in coloured gumboots work quickly to scale and gut them. They're still alive while this happens. All four look at me with complete antipathy as I approach, and I turn heel and walk away. I decide gutting live fish at four in the morning must really mess with your head.

I'm beginning to feel the effects of a night without sleep now - a slight nausea, an aching tiredness, a slowness - all so familiar to me from years of hospital night shifts. I'm really happy to see Mr Liu throw the last two sacks of broad beans onto his towering tricycle, because I know the rough-talking wholesalers will be closing up shop soon and like vampires, disappearing with the arrival of the sun.

We marvel that Mr Liu sustains working like this night after night, day after day, for months on end, just like all the vegetable sellers in all the wet markets in the city. Rise at one, go to market, set up shop, work all day, eat, go to bed. It's an undeniably hard life.

It's 5.45am and back at his own wet market half an hour away, Mr Liu unloads the day's worth of vegetables and fruits from his tricycle. His wife and son meet him at the stall to unload and arrange all the produce, because the market will open for trade in less than an hour and there's a lot to do. His wife absent-mindedly snaps a green bean in half, and there's no denying how fresh it sounds. We take our leave just as the first customers arrive.

What a night. Driving back into downtown Shanghai sleep struggles to overtake me, and I feel like I've spent hours discovering a frontier town rarely visited by outsiders, operating in the secret dead of night and governed by its own laws, peopled by tribes of rough men and women. Probaby from Shanxi. I imagine it's very little different from wholesale markets anywhere in the world, except perhaps for the unique provincial factional differences and the abundance of artfully arranged bok choy.

As we part ways, I ask JW and her ever-so-patient husband if, next time I have a hare-brained idea about doing something in the middle of the night that involves them, they could politely refuse me. They both agree.