Today, walking amid the Qingping market, I imagine a movie camera at my back, filming a short called "Mr. Squeamish Goes to Market."
I am Mr. Squeamish, a guy who tilts the tray of boneless chicken breasts at the Safeway to make sure there's not a drop of blood. Call it sterile if you like; sometimes I hunger for the cellophane world of America's markets, the laser at the check out, the silver carts, the samples of brie and sausage, the odorless air-conditioned ambiance with a hint of Beatles Muzak and an automatic teller machine to rescue me if I go over budget.
Marketing in China -- and particularly Guanzhou Canton -- is another matter altogether. It is less a visit to a market than a menagerie, a testament to man as Omnivore. Hundreds of stalls line both sides of the street featuring all manner of fish and fowl. Whatever crawls or walks or slithers can be found here. It is as if Noah's Ark had gone aground on this very spot beside the Pearl River.
Freshness has been taken to extremes. No need to check the date on the chops. They are still walking around. The fish? Cleavers are dispatching them even as they flop on the chopping block. A woman with forearms twice my own guts a carp with her fingers, then presents the still-wriggling poisson to the customer.
Turtles, having donated their shells to a side-street vendor, are skinny-dipping in tubs and looking bald as newborns. Eels, large and small, are writhing in a bowl. Periodically one escapes onto the slimey pavement and disappears. A monkey leaps into its vendor's arms each time a customer shows an interest.
You don't need to be a philologist to know where the word "carnage" comes from. Skulls and scapula are stacked knee-high, and everywhere hooks are creaking beneath red meat and ribs.
This is a market where parental guidance is suggested. Never mind the meowing kittens and what they've devised for man's best friend. Somewhere in the wooded hills of Sichuan must be a lot of pawless bears. At the pork stands, pigs' faces hang from hooks, flattened and pressed into goulish masks with yellow eyes.
To win the butcher's attention, the customer must poke his head through a curtain of sausages.
The seller of ducks stands behind a row of gaffed birds, their necks stretched and hanging one after another from a miniature scaffold. Other ducks have been pressed into disks, bright with an orange lacquer. Piled into straw baskets, necks coiled, they look less like birds than deflated balloons.
For blocks before entering the main thoroughfare, there is an intoxicating offering of spices, not ground and ready to be shaken or poured from a plastic box, but whole flowers, stems, roots and seeds, so abundant that their pollen and dust fills the air with a redolent haze. Red cayenne, yellow saffron, sage, Sichuan peppers, braided lengths of garlic bulbs, nutmeg, mustard seeds . . .
Mixed in with the spices is all that the animals have shed before taking their place on Meat Street, leopards' pelts, sharks' fins, tortoise shells, bear claws and birds' beaks are but a preview of what awaits.
Then come the medicinal herbs and potions -- deer antlers whole, sliced, or ground to powder, deer penis, gingseng root, dried snake skins, star fish, lizards and rodent.
At each stall, the vendor stands beneath the awning ready with cleaver, amid piles of hearts and livers and entrails -- a veritable organ bank. Overhead is a blackboard with the day's prices written in chalk. Each item is sold by the jin, a weight of measurement. The scale is a stick with uniform notches and a sliding counterbalance. The protesting chicken or fish is placed on a copper dish suspended from the stick, and the counterbalance is adjusted until it is in equilibirium. Haggling over price is commonplace.
This is a "free market." The merchant can set his or her own price within a certain prescribed range, and can keep the profits -- except for a modest tax to the state. It is part of the economic reforms that such markets exist, though the government is quick to point out that this is not capitalism, but "socialism with Chinese characteristics."
Whatever the system is called, free markets are pricier than the state-run markets, but offer a vastly better selection and a joie de vivre sadly lacking in their state-run counterparts. Within a few short years, free markets have become The Place To Shop. A recent government survey found Guanzhou's free markets sold four times more fish, mutton and beef than the state-run stores, a pattern repeated throughout the country.
But free markets vary widely from region to region. Transportation has not yet advanced to where there is a uniformity of available goods. In this morning's light, the vegetables and fruits shine like pearls in a Vermeer: oranges and bananas, crisp green beans, yellow flowering rape, jade colored pea pods, onions. But in the cities of northern China this winter they are by now lifting the blankets on the last of the wilted Bai Cai-white cabbage, and lining up to pay exorbitant prices for seedy and juiceless tangerines. What they wouldn't give for a stroll down this street.
Of course it is not only transportation, but also regional tastes that account for the difference. Southern Chinese palates, particularly Cantonese, are to northern palates what California's beaches are to Boston's. Those northerners living in the capital, Beijing, say the Cantonese will eat anything that has four legs except a table, and anything that flies except an airplane. They regale each other with tales of their southern cousins' promiscuous palates and gastrological perversity.
But what do those starched bureaucrats know of life's relish anyway, respond the Cantonese. Guanzhou's restaurants boast 5,400 dishes, including a nationally famous snake restaurant whose specialty is a soup of snakes' gall bladders. They even have a take out service. Not since the first undaunted diner braved the artichoke has so much exotica been brought together for the plate and bowl. From partridges to pikes, masked civets to pangolins, they are here in the Qingping market and on the city's menus.
As ingenious as they are in defining what is edible, so too they are in packaging and getting their supper home. The fish, still squirming, is neatly tied with a length of long grass through the gills, and held by a loop from the shopper's hand. At the end of an afternoon's marketing, supper is strapped or balanced onto the back of a bicycle and pedaled home. No station wagons here.
Sometimes dinner squawks all the way home. Frank Purdue may think his birds are fresh, but here the criteria is which bird puts up the best fight. The birds are hauled out of a basket, their wings pinned back so as to puff out their ample breasts. Eyes are checked, then wings. Not since I was inducted have I seen so probing a physical. When the choice is made, the bird is either carried away, its wings still half-nelsoned behind its neck, or else it's guillotined on the spot.
In a cafe in the heart of the market, diners greedily work their chop sticks and smile for the "Waiguoren" or foreigner who takes their picture behind a foreground of doberman-like creatures hanging a few feet away.
It is a very long way from an American market and the sanitized lexicon of "London broil," "fillet" and "loin." Here, the connection is intact between the pasture and the plate, a link I was rarely aware of when pushing my cart down the aisle of the neighborhood Safeway. Even the name -- "Safeway" -- seems to hold an irony after a visit to the Qingping market.