A rumor making its way around the internet claims that the historic Yau Ma Tei fruit market, Hong Kong’s largest, is run by the local crime syndicates known as triads. Intrigued, I decided to visit the market at its busiest time, between midnight and 7:00 am, to investigate.
Late at night, it’s easy to imagine drug deals and fistfights in the dimly lit corners of the buildings lining the street, most of which date back over a century. On the night I visit, a scent of citrus, rotten melon, and sweat hangs in the air. Shirtless men maneuver carts piled high with pallets of Washington apples and Japanese strawberries, while the luckier ones ride tiny, seatless forklifts from the loading zone to the storefronts.
Nearly half of all fruit sold in Hong Kong passes through Yau Ma Tei. Most workers arrive near midnight and work until 8:00 am. It’s not an easy job, and the schedule is grueling, but some of the old-timers have been here for over forty years.
Making my way around the market, chatting with the vendors and other workers, I meet an octogenarian by the name of Mr. Lam, who vehemently denies the rumors.
“No, no, no! The gangs never ran the market!” he insists. “In its heyday, there were nearly 400 stands, each with 10 to 20 employees. Most of them did physical labor at night. Some of the guys this job drew in were also in gangs. But the owners were usually well-to-do people who just wanted a business they could be proud of.”
Not far away, in a stall selling persimmons, snake fruit, Asian pears, and other delicacies, shirtless man named Mr. Yung recalls how in the past gangs would sometimes converge on the market, making any business impossible. “It used to be pretty dark around here. Gangs would come around, so regular people were afraid to walk through the area.”
Still, Yung agrees with Lam that stall owners are mostly honest businesspeople, even if some of their employees had ties to the triads. “The transport guys were usually gang members, and I think some of them still are,” he adds. “They used to fight over the stalls. Now and then, they’d get into a brawl in the market over territory. Today the police come through all the time, so it’s safe for tourists. Some people even take wedding photos here.”
The triads may mostly be gone, but their freewheeling ethos remains. When I ask the veterans of the market why they’ve stayed around all these years, “freedom” is a common refrain.
“My family doesn’t like it, but they’re used to it. They understand this is how I make a living,” says Mr. Ng, known around the market as Sau Nga Zai, or Snaggletooth. Nicknames are the designation of choice around here. “This guy’s name is Sai Leung—Boss Leung,” he says, pointing to his partner, “because he’s always giving orders.”
尽管如此，翁先生依然同意前一位林先生的说法。摊主大多是诚实的商人，即使他们的部分雇员和黑社会有关系。 “运输工人通常是帮派成员，我认为他们当中一些人现在仍然是。”他补充道。 “他们曾经在摊位上打架，偶尔会为了地盘问题发生争吵。但现在警察很常巡逻，所以对游客来说是安全的。甚至有人在这里拍婚纱照。”
Ng leaves home at 10:30 pm to come to the market, works all night, and gets off around 8:00 am. “I don’t have much time with my wife,” he says. “When I leave for work, she often hasn’t come home yet. My son once asked me not to work in this industry, but he’s grown up now.”
People who work regular hours may not see the graveyard shift as a kind of freedom, but for Ng, working while Hong Kong sleeps is liberating. “When I’m off, I’m totally free,” he boasts. “That makes the hard parts of the job worth it.”
In 1913, when the fruit market was built, Yau Ma Tei wasn’t known for much more than the nearby Tin Hau Temple. Today the main attraction is the market, which covers around 14,000 m2 and serves nearly 250 vendors. Since the 1970s, there have been proposals to relocate it, even though it’s been designated a historic building, because of the noise and the traffic disruption it causes. As of now, though, the market still stands in all its shirtless, cart-filled glory.
According to Lam, in the past, some of the noise came from the fighting that took place when the triads were more active nearby. “For some of the guys who worked in the market, physical violence was their only response to any conflict, and it drew attention.”
In addition to freedom, a tight-knit community also keeps people around. Mr. Sum, who’s 31, found his first job at Yau Ma Tei. Now, rather than hauling boxes of mandarins at 2:00 am, he comes in at 5:00 am to handle the books. Sum says that the market’s family-like relationships between merchants and customers, which have withstood natural disasters and economic downturns, are hard to find nowadays.
1913 年，水果市场刚刚建成，当时的油麻地只以天后庙为人所知，而今天大多数人都是因为市场本身慕名而来。它占地约 14,000 平方米，聚集了将近 250 家摊商。70 年代以后，由于噪音扰民和中断交通的原因，有人建议将油麻地市场找地方重新安置，尽管它已经被指定为历史建筑。不过这项提议最终没有实行，市场至今还在繁忙地运作着，一如往昔。
除了自由之外，团结的社区精神也是吸引人们留下的原因。沈先生今年 31 岁，在油麻地市场找到他的第一份工作。现在他不再是水果商，不用凌晨两点来搬运一箱箱柑橘；沈先生如今已是一位书商， 每天凌晨五点过来整理书籍。沈先生表示，市场内顾客和摊商之间像家人一样的紧密关系，能扛住所有自然灾害和经济衰退的打击。这种情谊现在很难在外面找到了。
“Human relationships are important here. We’re very close,” he says. “In other industries, people often care more about money than relationships. We’ve been working with some of our customers for a very long time, so if we ever need help, they’ll help us out, even if they lose money—and we’ll do the same for them. I don’t think there are many industries like that in Hong Kong anymore.”
The common complaint that young people in Hong Kong today are afraid of hard work finds an echo at the market. Many stall owners are frustrated at how difficult it has become to find people willing to do the physical labor their jobs require. “Sure, the gangsters fought over turf and sold drugs from time to time,” says Lam. “But then again, they were willing to work hard.”
Photographer & Contributor: Viola Gaskell
摄影师与供稿人: Viola Gaskell