Man on the Street: Eel Monger

By Daniel Plafker, May 17, 2018

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Man on the Street is a regular series where we talk to someone doing an everyday job, in order to gain insight into the lives of normal Chinese people

Mr. Xie wears boots to work. And if you plan to visit him while he’s on the job, we recommend you consider doing the same. That’s because Xie’s place of work is the Huangsha Aquatic Products Market, aka Guangzhou’s biggest trading center for fish, crabs, clams, prawns, crocodiles and every other type of seafood that the rivers, bays and fish farms of South China can muster.

The market’s winding lanes of huddled stalls and multi-level, open-air warehouse section are a storm of commercial activity. Terrified sea life of every imaginable variety flop desperately from brimming tanks and barrels, specially kitted-out trucks-turned-aquariums rumble through the crowded alleys at a snail’s pace and beleaguered men hurry from stall to stall dragging nets, stacking traps and pushing carts of shellfish amid the pronounced aroma that is the signature of fish markets everywhere. 

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It strikes a marked contrast with the stately, peaceful airs of Shamian Island, which lies just across a narrow moat to the east. The floor is a mire of guts, scales, dark puddles and crisscrossing streams of mysterious liquids. Hence the rubber footwear.

It’s not the prettiest place that Guangzhou has to offer visitors but it’s certainly one not to miss. There’s something strangely beautiful about the stacked masses of doomed sea life and, between the sights, smells and deafening noise of hollering hawkers and bellowing buyers, there are few places in the city that offer a comparable blast of sensory stimulation. Not to mention, it’s a trove of ingredients for the culinarily-inclined. 

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There are even a few shops on the upper levels that will kill, gut and cook up your purchases for you on the spot.

The aforementioned Mr. Xie, whose stall can be found near the southeast corner of the market, not far from the ferry pier, has a singular focus in his product range: eels. Two main varieties, the larger of which is as thick as a human arm, squirm and writhe in Medusa-like piles in large glass tanks. It’s a scene reminiscent the 2004 art-house film Anacondas 2: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid. Their warden, the amiable Mr. Xie, is an early riser, arriving at 4am each morning to begin his 12-hour workday. 

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“That’s not even early by our standards,” he insists. “Some folks have been setting up their stalls for an hour already by the time I get here.” 

Xie has spent 10 long years hawking his slithering charges, all of which are farmed – not wild-caught – elsewhere in Guangdong. 

“A truck comes with fresh stock most mornings,” he tells us. “The eels sell quickly.” Even so, he maintains that the creatures can survive up to a month in their crowded tanks. 

Business is brisker in the wintertime than the summer, by Xie’s estimate. He suspects that this is because people prefer to eat eel in cold weather. The best preparation? “Steamed, with a bit of soy sauce,” Xie says with confidence. At RMB60 for a half kilo, there are cheaper, less squirmy meals on offer at the market, but few that are likely to put up as much of a fight.


THE DIRTY DETAILS

Monthly income: RMB2,000 and up
Days per week7
Hours per day: 12 (4am-4pm)

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