I had just arrived in Beijing in March 2007. Located a twenty-minute stroll away from my rented house was a very large wholesale food market. Along the way I passed a dilapidated commercial street behind the neighbourhood. A shopwindow displayed stacks of large round flatbread. As it had not been wiped for too long, the dust on it had arranged itself into every imaginable pattern. I would always imagine a relatively small patch of dust on the right fringe to be a chubby panda. For no particular reason, I would imagine that it wanted to hold on to the flatbread and eat it up one mouthful at a time. Walking ahead brought me to a still functioning railway track. From a distance, the sound of the approaching trains clattering down the track would somehow make people tense, even though it took a mere five seconds to step across the narrow track. Beside the track was a metal-roofed shelter with could seat one person, but I had never really seen anyone in it. Life can similarly mould the most insignificant details into a suspenseful drama, and it may also not be able to resolve the mystery of this drama. Beijing was not hazy from dust back then. When the cold of winter was particularly acute, I would sometimes make the painful decision to spend three dollars for a trishaw ride; but because most trishaws expose their passengers to the wind, I was stiff from the cold when I entered the food market. The smell of meat assaulted the senses so much that I wondered if I should also have been cut open, and hung from the rust-free iron hooks.
The wholesale food market was simply too big. Beef and mutton were in one hall, seafood and poultry in another, pork retail and wholesale sections were separate from each other, and vegetable wholesale and retail stalls were some distance apart; it seemed as if I could never walk to the end of the marketplace in my high-heeled shoes. I lived alone, and without a gas stove in my rented house, I had to use an electric hotplate which I always felt was too weak for stir-frying. I could finish one portion of double-cooked pork only over two meals. The last bit of leftover garlic sprout could still be cooked with a bowl of noodles. I would go to the wholesale food market for the sake of saving some money, even though I actually disliked that place. After walking all that distance, I would end up carrying home only a very small piece of streaky pork. When I impulsively bought a ready-cut, whole free-range chicken, I had to drink chicken soup for exactly one week. After finally finishing all the soup, I would sit alone, feeling nauseous in an empty, desolate room. Finally, I would pour away the dregs containing a mixture of chicken meat and skin and the pulp of a few slices of old ginger .
When I was better off, I started buying food from supermarkets. I patronised a huge Carrefour supermarket before I was married, and a very small JKL supermarket after I was married. Carrefour had pork spare ribs at specially discounted prices every morning. On two occasions, I set my mind on buying some. I arrived at about 8.50, only to find that long queues had already formed. Elderly men and women held environmentally-friendly shopping bags, appearing poised for battle while waiting for the doors to open. Without a winning strategy, I happily ate breakfast at MacDonald’s on the first floor instead. JKL Supermarket sold only the most basic cuts of pork and mutton. Occasionally there were a few fishes that appeared frozen hard. JKL Supermarket’s business was always poor, but miraculously it did not close down. I liked the thinly sliced streaky pork which was such a matching complement when steamed with preserved mustard greens or ground glutinous rice. There were also large and small boxes of handy, ready-cooked fried bean sauce with diced meat. That was why in summer we always had noodles cooked with fried bean sauce for lunch. A very big bowl of fried bean sauce could last one week. After the stewed onion had disintegrated, the sauce seemed to be chock-full of diced pork. In a special way, this directly gave one a deep feeling of abundance, even though my feeling came from being able to have however much pork as I wanted in my noodles. Sometimes, when we were tired of eating noodles, we would buy a piece of flatbread to dip in the fried bean sauce. Now, as before, there is a dilapidated commercial row in my neighbourhood. Layers of flatbread are piled behind the very dusty display window. Cooks wearing dirty tall hats stand and smoke in front of the flatbread. Afterwards they take out big, very blunt knives to cut up the bread into eight portions. The flatbread stays piping hot when we reach home. It dawns on me each time when we reach home that I forgot to look out for the dust on the display window. It does not matter though because every imaginable form of dust pervades Beijing. You can, as you would for a serialised drama, stretch your imagination.
After returning from America, I went through a cynical phase when I detested China’s supermarkets. I kept thinking about and missed New York’s Chinese supermarkets. I began to buy food online from Taobao. Orders placed the previous night were delivered the following afternoon. The badly mangled fish head was wrapped in a plastic bag, and the soft green leaves of the small Chinese cabbage were covered with sparkling water droplets. We had spicy fish head and small Chinese cabbage soup for dinner that night. The Taobao branch proprietor gave us a free pack of fern root powder with every delivery. That is why my kitchen cabinet has many packs of unopened fern root powder now. I doubt I will ever open them. Such are life’s gifts: not totally worthless, just totally useless.
Now I have returned to the wholesale food market. It is winter again. The market is still as infinitely massive as before. I still walk into a chaotic blend of odours of meat. Mud is all over the floor in the seafood shed. Sometimes, one or two brave, undaunted mantis shrimps will leap onto the floor, with nowhere else to go. Eventually they will be picked up and sold off at half-price. I always feel that their struggle is completely futile, but then again I realise that without this struggle they would be doomed to the certain fate of the fifty-one-kati lot. I buy two katis of sinewy beef shank from the beef and mutton hall. Then I walk on to the pork hall very happily, planning to buy a piece of liver dripping with blood home to cook a spinach and liver soup. My slender shoe heels get stuck in the crevices of the cement floor several times. All around me is a cacophony of annoyingly loud noises, yet each one is indistinct. I realise that never again will these form an ensemble playing a sad song to the food market.