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Keelung’s Traditional Markets: Looking at the History and Changes Through the Lens of Mian Jie Fish Stall

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The memories of Keelung’s traditional market | Grocery shopping in Keelung

Mian Jie Fish Stall is situated within Huilong Market. Because the lady boss does not know how to ride a motorcycle, she has struck a long-standing deal with the ice merchant to deliver the fishes that she picks early each morning from Kanziding Fish Market to her stall alongside the ice. Mian Jie Fish Stall has been around for more than half a century. Her family moved from Xizhi to Keelung during Huilong Market’s heyday and has been operating the fish stall ever since. Unlike the pork and vegetable stalls which start their business later (after 7 am), the fish stall starts operation at 5:30am. She hopes for more customers in the next twelve hours of operation.

traditional market in Huilong Market

Mian Jie Fish Stall has borne witness to the changes in Huilong Market

Previously, Huilong Market was bustling with vendors and customers. Now, she has to hustle for customers. "Business was good in the early days. Customers had to wait for us to serve them. Now, the tide has turned, and we are the ones waiting for customers," she recounts. Her words capture the changes in the times and the the power reversal between customers and merchants. Previously, fish brought in from Heping Island could be displayed haphazardly, and customers would pick them out themselves. Business was so good that they never had to worry about having leftover stock.

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In the past, her regulars were primarily teachers from Ming Chuan Junior High School, as well as workers who shopped for groceries after work. Preparing one’s own meals was common as it was not a practice to order delivery, fast food, or takeaways. She laments the emergence of supermarkets and dining out, amongst other trends, which has rendered grocery shopping obsolete.

Keelung's traditional markets

Current day Huilong market is a far cry from its glory days

Physical and Emotional Changes within Huilong Market

Most vendors in Huilong Market rent their stalls. The rent in the market has been going down, contrary to the general trend of skyrocketing real estate prices. Despite this, the rent is still a burden to the stall owners. The lady boss revealed that now that the market has fallen from favour, her monthly rent has also fallen from TWD 6,000 to 4,000. While it may not sound expensive, the stall's poor revenue makes the rent of TWD 4,000 pretty hefty. Previously when business was good, the landlord could charge up to TWD 8,000 or 12,000.

Gone are the days where Huilong market offered a plethora of choices

"There used to be many vegetable stalls, but now there's only one left. Previously, there were five or six vegetable stalls and seven pork stalls, but now there are only two...”

It's hard to imagine the heyday of the Huilong market, where there were many vendors, where customers had to wait for their turn to be served, and where the vendors would be too busy to chat. These stalls that once offered consumers a plethora of choices has now been given a new lease of life.  

"No one is selling their wares at these stores anymore; they've all been rented out as storerooms. This stall used to sell vegetables, and that one used to sell chickens, they even sold merchandises from mainland China... and would be decorated with beautiful lights during Chinese New Year. Now it has is being rented out for the rearing of fishes."

The rent remains a significant cost for vendors. Because traditional markets have fallen out of favour with customers, these idle store fronts have been converted into backrooms or fish breeding grounds. Pointing to a neighbouring store, the lady boss said that workers would come and feed the fishes at 9am daily. Other stores have been converted into warehouses. She said that her family used to own some stores and would rent them out as store fronts. But because the stalls do not get good foot traffic, they have been converted into warehouses instead, housing two refrigerators for the fish stalls. She added that if the fish stall closes down in the future, she might putting up these stalls for rent too. Judging from the flow of our conversation, it appears that the lady boss is also steeling herself for the poor business outlook.

Keelung's traditional markets

Mian Jie fish stall

How Traditional Markets Have Changed While Staying Constant

Huilong Market has always been unique. Besides the traditional market, it also houses restaurants, billiard halls, cinemas and dance halls on the second floor. It was a lively place and customers would eat and shop here, making it a one-stop entertainment centre. 

The multi-faceted nature of these entertainment centres has left a deep impression on people. Ironically, the market vendors do not share this view of the entertainment centres. The lady boss, who works for almost twelve hours a day, rarely unwinds at the entertainment centres after work. After all, the restaurants are mostly venues for banquets, and there are few opportunities to go to the cinema and bowling alleys. As this area gentrifies, the cinemas and restaurants have left, and the bowling alley only returned in recent years, hoping to woo customers back to Huilong Market.

If not for changes in people's lifestyles and consumption patterns, Huilong Market would not have fallen from grace. The lady boss has rented from the same landlord since 1983. Today, the landlord has aged and can hardly recognize her, but the rental relationship has continued. When Huilong Market was first built 60 years ago, each stall was separated from the another by wooden doors. They have since been replaced with iron doors when the former disintegrated with age and damage. In her stall, there still hangs a painting by her son who drew it when he was attending Ming-Chuan Junior High School. Decades have passed and her son is now in his fifties, yet the board still hangs there. With the passage of time, some places have come and gone but the people-to-people relationships and memories remains indelible.

Keelung's traditional markets

Huilong Market has experienced waves of changes, and many of the stores are no longer around

Mian Jie fish stall has been operating in Huilong Market for more than half a century. She does not like to venture out even on her days off. Despite living in Keelung for decades after her marriage, she admitted that she would be at a loss if asked for directions. She is unfamiliar with the stalls at Miao Kou Night Market, and admits that she remains an outsider at heart despite residing in this area for decades. Perhaps because she is a homebody, works for long hours, and prefers to cook her own meal, she does not eats out or shops often. Her ability to go on vacation depends on whether she has time off, which in turn depends  on Kanziding Market’s operating hours. On her days off, she takes her children out even though she is a homebody. Now that her children have grown up, their roles have reversed and they are the ones taking her out, and she also spends time outside by partaking in community tours. The lady boss may not be familiar with Keelung, but she has nevertheless borne witness to the history of the district, having been in its iconic Huilong Market for more than 50 years.

Text by: Wu Guanxuan

Interviewed by: Liu Shuyu

Photos by: Ru Mengnan

Translated by: Eileen Soh

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