Feb 28, 2008 1
While the rest of our motley crew of English teachers were buying used t-shirts, I was outside watching thousands of people walk through the evening market. There was a massive church less than a block away where thousands queued up to receive their Ash Wednesday blessings. Afterwards, many of whom would go shopping. The market was covered in a golden light, and most people had a black cross on their forehead. Some crosses were fresh and a deep black, while others were smeared and faded from having it on all day. A kid wearing an oversized baseball cap tugged at his dad’s shirt in an effort to make his dad buy him ice cream. Two old women selling carrots and greens underneath an umbrella appeared to be teasing each other. At the very least, they were certainly having a blast laughing and pointing at each another. The scene was everything that Hong Kong is not. It was dirty, chaotic, and loud. The street was a jumble of carts selling everything from apples to DVDs to Tupperware. The pedestrians inefficiently zig-zagged from one stand to another. There was no way to be the orderly pedestrian of Hong Kong. The street was a mess.
In Hong Kong, as in New York, people rush by one another with a certain economy of movement. Few people bother to glance up at each other, their efficient body movements internalized from years of moving through crowds. In fact, looking right at a person (say in the subway or MTR) is one of most prevalent urban taboos in first world metropolises. In Hong Kong—the central business district in particular—pedestrians move in automatic reactions to the environment, rarely acknowledging other people in the crowd as anything than obstacles. With similar clothing and demeanor, people begin to resemble automatons.
Coming from Hong Kong and New York before that, the big markets like the one in Manila are a real joy. Some people slowly meander while others move in spurts. People get into each others way, and then, they look at each other. From a distance, everybody seems like an individual. The big markets in developing cities are a muddled and perhaps a more inefficient form of capitalism, but it’s also one that’s more fun to watch. You can witness vignettes of people’s lives in ways that you rarely see at the big-box supermarket. People just seem so much more human.