Explore the Unknown: A Journey Into Shanghai’s Wet Markets

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Writing Adventures in Shanghai
Column & Photos By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Remember when you were a little kid? A fearless little moppet who didn’t mind a bit of dirt or a few suspicious shadows lurking in the corners? Back then, you longed for the unknown, and the most exciting thing your folks could say was, “Get on out of here. Go explore something.” Once they did, you were off, scrambling for the dump down at the end the road, your grandma’s attic, or the record store where the teenagers hung out. (Really, your folks were just trying to get you out of their hair for a bit, but who cares? A great idea is a great idea.)


And guess what? Exploring the unknown is still a great idea! Especially for a writer.

Here in Shanghai, I’ve become a bit obsessed with exploring the neighborhood wet markets (permanent farmers’ markets where locals buy all their fresh goods: fruits, rice, veggies, meat, fish, eggs, nuts, spices, peppers, noodles, and so on). They’re gorgeous, grotesque places where giant white radishes are stacked to the ceiling and skinned goats’ heads sit on counters waiting to be purchased. The floors are slick with blood and cornhusks and broken noodles (lesson #1 when exploring a wet market: do not wear open-toed shoes).

What grabs my attention most at a market? It depends. Last weekend, it was the chickens—dozens of live, squawking chickens delivered to the poultry counter in tiny cages on the backs of mopeds and bicycles—and the women behind the counter who killed, cleaned, and chopped up whichever chicken you ordered…right then and there…as you watched.

But that’s not all. Last weekend I snapped photos of the (dead) five-foot-long eels coiled like cobras in the fish section, live turtles (for soup), dried fish skins hanging from the rafters, and much more.

Now it takes some guts to explore these markets. The sights and smells aren’t for the weak-kneed. But they’re perfect for me…writer me. After every visit, I’m brimming with so many ideas that I can’t get to my desk fast enough.

So put on your walking shoes and go explore someplace new! Visit the model railroad museum tucked under the bridge or the park where old folks play chess. Head down that alley near your office that always smells like donuts. Enjoy your exploration, and when you get home, get all your impressions and observations on the page. Make a list, write a journal entry, and then consider what may come next: a query letter, an essay, an article, a poem, a blog entry, or maybe even a book.Kristin Bair O’Keeffe has been living in and writing about Shanghai, China, for over a year. Her articles and essays about the China experience can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of The Baltimore Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Highlights for Children. Recently she contributed to To Shanghai With Love, a new Shanghai travel guide. Kristin writes about other stuff as well, including education, parenting, and bears. Her work about those topics can be found in San Diego Family Magazine, The ELL Outlook, The Gettysburg Review, PortFolio Magazine, and other publications. Kristin’s blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures in Shanghai (the good, the bad, and the beautiful) and garners the attention of readers all over the world. To learn more, visit http://web.mac.com/kristinokeeffe.


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