Qingping traditional medicine market

I’d heard it said a few times that “In Guangdong they eat anything with four legs except the table”. Even that hadn’t prepared me for the Qingping market. There was the initial shock of the animal trade, but after that was a mysteriously multiplying menu of medicine.

I could identify beans and mushrooms in large varieties, but as I moved on I found dried tendons of deer, sun-dried penis of animals, huge bundles of dried starfish, sea horses and other marine products I could not put a name to. In the last 10 years there have been multiple studies of bacterial contamination of the dried sea food, and the results do say that some caution is called for.

The rows and rows of shops seems to have been here for more years than you can count. Guide books talk of a big clean up after the 2003 SARS outbreak. But the four story building in the middle of this sprawling road, which houses as many shops as the street outside, was completed in 1979. The rental for space here apparently is a percentage of the sales. It seemed to me that most of the shops inside the building concentrate on wholesale, whereas the ones outside are clearly more interested in the retail trade. I found it confusing in detail, but the general ambience was very familiar from markets in India.

Animal trade

The Qingping Road market in Guangzhou is a sprawling place, where you can buy many different kinds of things. The trade in animals is only a part of it. But this is the part which disturbed me a lot. It started with fascination. I first noticed goldfish on sale, and thought of the Youngest Niece who’s just begun to care for one in a bowl: feeding and changing water regularly. Then came a section with turtles. These are part of the quartet of powerful creatures of Chinese myth (along with dragons, unicorns and phoenix), and one in a bowl of water outside your shop is part of the Feng Shui beliefs.

I was not surprised by the turtles, but seeing them in large numbers in plastic crates was a little odd. In one corner of a display was the somewhat more disturbing sight of turtles with brightly painted shells. The idea of these as fashion accessories was not endearing. Then came the section of birds. I’m not a fan of caged birds, and read too many reports of illegal trade in wild birds busted in my own town to have much fascination for these shops. But the part of the market which gave me the shivers was the one with dogs and cats. I grew up with dogs running around the house and garden, but I wouldn’t want one now. A flat in a high rise is not the right place for dogs. Seeing them in tiny cages was not pretty.

I shared the featured photo with a niece and her first question was whether these are eaten. Perhaps not. On the other hand, there are rumours that in the alleys here one can find prohibited animals which you might want as pets, and banned trade in animal parts used in traditional medicine. If there is, then those traders are living dangerously. Law enforcement in China can be sudden and heavy.

I found the Qingping Road market fascinating; it preserves old ways of living which you don’t get to see much as a tourist. But I was in sympathy with The Family when she walked quickly past this line of shops.

On the road

Small roads in China are always interesting. In Guangzhou we walked down Qingping Road looking at all the interesting things which go on. I was really excited by this simple modification to a bicycle which made it useful for deliveries. In the grainy black and white photos that came out of China during the cultural revolution, everyone seemed to ride bicycles. They are not so common on the road any longer in Beijing and Shanghai, but in Guangzhou they were still in use.

Typically, improvised goods carriers in India tend to fill up narrow roads, so I was quite impressed by the very delicately judged width of the platform. It was just a little wider than the person riding the bike would be. It would allow a lot of stuff to be carried without inconveniencing others. I think the constant policing of streets does produce an exo-conscience in the Chinese. When I saw the crowd behind the bike in the photo you see above, I had to join them.

A very animated game was in progress. There was a lot of discussion between players and kibitzers. There was a while, when I was a student, when I tried out board games from across the world. This board looked like Xiangqi, but the pieces did not match the vague memory I had of them. Perhaps I’d seen some pieces with traditional Chinese characters, or perhaps the characters are different in Guangdong province, or, and this was very likely, I’d forgotten the characters altogether.

I walked on feeling happy. I like these impromptu gatherings on the street. They go very well with my notion of a holiday without hard plans.