There are over 30 medium-sized open air food markets in Shanghai. There are literally hundreds of small such markets in every neighborhood of the city. In this time of prosperity in one of the world’s great cities, why don’t the citizens buy their food in comfortable, air-conditioned food markets? The answer is that most Chinese families still do not have a refrigerator – or if they do have one, it is very small. Therefore, the average Chinese person must buy fresh vegetables and other food items daily.
Normally, these markets are near the clusters of apartment buildings. Shoppers walk to the market, where they will buy small quantities daily – just enough for that day’s meals.
There are typically two different types of open-air food markets; the Morning Market and the All-Day Market.
- Morning Markets: The morning markets in Shanghai are open for business 5 am to 8 am, and operate every day of the week. Normally, they are situated in a centrally located road, alleyway or a plaza.
- All-Day Markets: Almost all markets now are of this type, which opens at about 8 am and operates for about 12 hours each day. The food stalls are located either outdoors on a street corner or in semi-enclosed arcades.
Years ago, all of the open-air markets were owned and run by the government. Now, thanks to liberalization, individuals are free to sell their own produce and meats virtually anywhere without a license. However, the government (State Vegetable Corporation and Shanghai Municipal Financial Office) still remains the major investor in 23 of the larger markets in Shanghai. They do allow the markets, though, to operate in a free-market environment without pricing or distribution guidelines.
Of course, the process begins with the farmers who produce the items to be sold. They can either take the goods to the markets themselves or they can contract with a trucker-broker, who would buy the produce from the farmers and then take all the risk and responsibility of selling the food at the markets. Farmers can also contract with representatives of neighborhood apartment complexes to sell their produce at markets situated near those apartments.
In addition to the sale of goods to the city’s inhabitants, there are some enterprising people, called resellers, who buy from the wholesale markets and then resell at various locations throughout Shanghai. These resellers are normally on the 3-wheeled bicycles and have no other expenses besides the cost of a bicycle and a bicycle-load of produce. They need no licenses or registrations.
An average family in Shanghai of four might spend about 70-100 RMB per week on vegetables, equal to 5% of their total expenses. There is almost no bargaining over the prices, since they are low to begin with. Shoppers normally are more interested in the freshness and the quality of the produce and meats. Prices remain fairly stable all year. Surprisingly, the prices are not hiked for an expat who wanders in.
All produce and meats are sold by the kilogram, so scales are used to measure the weights. As you might imagine, many customers find it comforting to double-check their weights using their own scale or those provided in the Market Manager’s Office. Customers become very vocal when errors are made – price adjustments normally follow such errors.
Shanghai’s More Well-known Markets
Xiangyang Road Morning Market: This market is typical of the morning “free markets” in Shanghai. The sellers are mainly free-enterprise farmers, who set up shop on this downtown street, located in Shanghai’s former French Concession. As a medium-sized market, it is one block long. The Chinese customers consider it their duty to obtain the freshest and cheapest-possible produce for their family’s lunch and dinner. Some of the very early customers are still in pajamas!
Nanchang Road Morning Market: This morning market is nearly twice as big as the Xiangyang Road Market. It’s located between Xiangyang Nan Road and Shanxi Nan Road on Nanchang Road. Like the Xiangyang Road Market, the Nanchang Road Market is in the heart of downtown Shanghai, just one block from fashionable Huaihai Road. The Nanchang Road Market is also predominately populated by local farmers, so everything is remarkably fresh – sometimes still alive!
Xiaxing Road All-Day Market: This market is quite typical of the all-day free markets in Shanghai. Access is just off a main commercial street with a well-defined entrance. The all-day markets in Shanghai are all under government supervision.
Most of the vendors at the Xiaxing Road Market buy produce at one of the city’s wholesale markets. Some vendors are a farmer and wife team who come to this location every morning, while other family members stay out on the farm. They generally have only one or two types of vegetables to sell each day. However, over the course of a year, they might sell 20 different types of vegetables, depending on what the farm produces at different times.
Expats will recognize most of these vegetables: tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, onions (red and yellow), celery, potatoes, spinach, bok choy, and asparagus. However, they will also see many vegetables that are not seen in America or Germany or England: amaranth, pea sprouts, 8″ long red radishes, fresh bamboo shoots, and water chestnuts.
Zhongshan Nan Road All-Day Market: One of Shanghai’s major wholesale produce markets is located in the heart of Old Shanghai on The Bund. Shoppers will find this all-day wholesale fish and meat market in an open-air arcade. The market is open from 3:00 am to 1:00 pm daily.
The produce market hall is a semi-enclosed building consisting of permanent 10′ x 10′ stalls, each with its own metal gate and lock. Most of the vendors are brokers, who hire trucks to go out to the nearby farms to pick up the produce that they will sell that day. The broker usually pays the farmer in cash and he will stay at the market until he sells out what he purchased, even if it takes 2-3 days. He will repeat this process over and over again throughout the year.