Selina Cheng hunts for story ideas when she’s too lazy to cook or to do her laundry, or takes photos when none of the above appeal. She previously wrote for AFP Beijing and covered the Occupy movement for AP. Selina is currently studying investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.
Hong Kong’s wholesale fruit market is tucked into a quiet corner not far from the usual buzz of Yau Ma Tei.
Stroll along the small alleyways of the market in broad daylight, and you may only find one or two stores selling expensive Japanese grapes or American raspberries.
Most other shops are closed for business, while their shopkeepers chat sluggishly with the neighbours or simply take an afternoon nap at the shop front.
All of Hong Kong’s fruit vendors – except supermarket chains – obtain their produce through this market place sandwiched between Reclamation Street, Waterloo Road and Ferry Street.
The location in inactivity is barely noticeable in daytime, and even visitors to the Broadway Cinemathèque might not know the pre-WWII market place is just a block away.
But the market comes into life as soon as midnight approaches.
As the rest of the city goes to sleep, wholesalers and fruit retailers are just starting another day: buyers ready to pay the highest prices arrive early to choose from the best quality and varieties available, but as bargaining drags on and stocks go out, they will drop steadily throughout the night and hit the bottom once daylight dawns upon the aged two-storey stone house, standing since 1913.
There you will see barebacked workers streaming through hundreds of piles of cartons stacked on wooden pallets along the western strip of Waterloo Road.
With a bunch of order forms or inventory records in one hand, they are most probably counting boxes and loading them on and off trolleys and lorries.
The ongoing flow of workers and their electric stackers are only occasionally interrupted when a large truck or late night taxi try to drive through the hustle and bustle of the market place.
Most of the fruits sold here are what you would usually find at local wet markets: apples, oranges, dragon eye fruits or star fruits if it is the right season, but you will also spot a handful of organic produce from exotic origins.
If you pay enough attention – you might find the vendor selling triangular and cubic watermelons imported from Japan.
When the clock hits 4:30 am – it’s break time. Brawny and perhaps tattooed midaged workers gather at Nam Kee, the noodle shop on the other side of Reclamation Street.
Some gobble down their “lunch” – maybe a bowl of instant noodles with luncheon meat and sunny-side up; others sip their iced lemon tea while watching outdated soap series replaying on the TV up the ceiling’s corner.
You may also see grey-haired and spectacled fruit buyers huddle up around their hot milk tea, taping their smartphone calculators and scrutinizing details of their purchase noted on small scraps of paper to compare the best deals they scored for the night.
These are the experts of the market: they know exactly which wholesaler gives the best prices, and at what time.
The hive of activity begins to slow down as night gives way to the clear light of day.
Wholesalers have sold most of their inventories and buyers have finished with business and left. Workers finally are able to sit down and let themselves drift away for a moment or two. A man takes a crunchy bite into a leftover pear as breakfast, another goes into the public bathroom to wash up before calling it a day.
At 7am, the sun rises up and above the Kowloon skyline and the tropical heat descends anew. The fruit market quietly slips back into lethargy.