Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The magic of night markets

From Malaysia 2010


Night markets are very common across Asia, it seems like a cross between a state fair (where you get lots of street food), and a flea market (where you can buy almost everything). And it happens every day. And, every day, it can be different. And, given these tropical climates, once the sun sets, things get a lot cooler, and people start going outside to enjoy the cooler nighttime air.






I still remember the first night market I went to, in Taipei, as a young kid. I remember it being a really mysterious experience.. I was only in 2nd grade, brought there by an uncle who spoke only a little English (because I didn't speak any Chinese). There were all these vendors, with a bunch of toys, placed on blankets on the street, dimly lit under a few fluorescent or incandescent light bulb. Then, there are these games that you could play and win prizes, and places to get lots of snacks.

Even after all these years, night markets are still a mysterious but exciting place for me. In Malaysia, they're called pasar malam, (literally, night market), and it's a similar, but different process. Of course, there's always the food vendors there, but there's a lot more: you can buy groceries, household utensils, clothing, pirated DVDs / CD, toys. Only thing missing that they didn't have were the carnival games. And all of these vendors, literally, operate out of the back of their car. S asked if I've ever been to a pasar malam, and I thought I did, but she said the one behind her house was the best. So we went to go check it out...

From Malaysia 2010

When you arrived, it was PACKED. Imagine a few small streets, closed to traffic. The first section we walked into was full of food vendors. You could smell the cooking oil in the air, mixing with people lined up at various stalls. We saw apom (a crispy crepe, filled with peanuts and sugar), kuih (sweet and sticky desserts), fried campadak (looks like a jackfruit, but with a nuttier taste), zong zi (Chinese wrapped sticky rice dumplings).






From Malaysia 2010


From Malaysia 2010


From Malaysia 2010

While taking photos, I noticed a guy putting his hands to block photos of things each time I took them. And it wasn't even his stall!! Wasn't sure if he was trying to be annoying or what... so I just explained, with a smile, I'm just taking photos. But S, being so fast on her feet (especially in Chinese), started saying "Do you know who this is? He's a famous US photographer for a travel magazine!". This guy (who apparently was also a food vendor), was asking "which magazine?". Again, S, being much quicker on her feet, said "it's one of the biggest in the US".

Suddenly, this guy's behavior changed completely 180 degrees! He motioned for us to come towards his stall..... a motorcycle.
From Malaysia 2010


He was explaining how his stall is so famous, it was already out of food, and that I should take photos of his setup. (Note: famous has a particular meaning in Malaysia/Singapore. Once a stall becomes "famous", people suddenly become willing to wait over 30 minutes for your food, and to pay a premium. Problem is.. sometimes there are 'too many' famous places, some of which are just copycats of the original) Then he went on to explain what days he's at the PJ pasar malam, his particular speciality (cha shao, Chinese roast pork), and to come back some other time. Amazing how people sometimes will change their personality when they think somebody important is nearby. Hah... hope he doesn't read my blog. =)


From Malaysia 2010

But one of the most interesting things I saw in the pasar malam, was the ability to buy clothes and kitchen utensils. S said that I should get some socks here, but I was a bit skeptical. I remember from previous experience that night market quality was quite poor, and didn't want to be wasting my money. It was clear that the socks were from generic Chinese manufacturers, but they were really cheap, I think 5 pairs for RM10, or about US$3.50. After much stubbornness on my side, S convinced me to buy a few. And, in hindsight, they're not bad. She even mentioned how all of her socks were from the pasar malam. I guess for < $1 per pair, who would ever want to buy socks in the US?? Similarly, her sister picked up some trash baskets and pots/pans from the household things vendors. The most interesting thing about these vendors is that they literally operate out of their cars. The sock vendor had a bunch of trays, and the van was parked behind their stall. Similarly, the household utensils guy had a small minivan completely full of pots, pans, baskets, silverware, almost anything you could find in a Wal-mart. I wondered how much money it took to start a business like this? Your overhead is practically $0, your working capital is tied up in whatever you could carry in your car, and your business is completely in cash. And, if you're a night market vendor, what do you do during the day? Did they just run a shop during the day, and packed things into a car for the night markets? S mentioned that vendors will often travel to different night markets every day... what system was there to make sure there weren't too many sock vendors in one market, and not enough in another? If you're the sock vendor, what do you do if your socks go out of fashion?

In any case, night markets still provide lots of entertainment for me... you go with a bunch of friends, share snacks as you walk down the aisles of stuff, take pictures of interesting things, and have a chance to observe a culture by how they spend their evenings...

1 comment:

Amy said...

"a lot cooler" seems like an overstatement... :oP