I sat down at a rickety plastic table, held in balance with one leg propped up by a stone. The coffee stall owner came over, held up two fingers in a victory sign and I nodded with a knowing smile.
In a jiffy, he brought over two cups of teh (milk tea) and placed them on the table, one for me and one for my wife who was shopping for groceries nearby.
I whipped out my phone and started scrolling. It was my regular Saturday at the morning market in Alam Jaya, Selangor, surrounded by familiar faces, sights, smells and a cacophony of noises, all things familiar and re-assuring – my comfort zone, a non-event.
Before the movement control order began, I was quite a regular traveller. Wherever I went and whenever possible, I would visit the local wet market instead of being holed up in the cosy comfort of the hotel watching TV while waiting for the rest of the gang to get ready to set out for the day.
I like to touch base with the local environment and local people and I believe the best place to learn the life and lifestyle of the locals is the wet market where you can see, smell, feel and eat their specialties and culinary preferences.
Even when I worked in London, I would go with my wife to the wet market on Church Street, a side street off Edgeware Avenue, a walking distance from where we lived in Randolph Avenue.
We would comb the market, buying fruits and vegetables, and oh, especially cherries, for the week. “A pound for a pound!” the potato vendor would call out.
He would address every woman shopper as “darling”, a term of endearment similar to “Leng Lui” (beautiful girl) which our local wet market fellas would use regardless of age and looks.
But my best discovery there was the salmon fish heads. They were selling them for 50 pence (just under RM3 today) a piece with plenty of meat still attached.
I was told they used to give them away for free until they found out that Asians, maybe mostly Malaysians, loved them and so they upped the price.
My wife would cook up a wok of fish head curry with lady’s fingers and eggplants. While the fish head was dirt cheap, the vegetables, obviously imported, cost an arm and a leg. Cost aside, the dish was sumptuous and hugely therapeutic in somewhat curing our homesickness!
Once in a while, we would walk to the end of Church Street where they sold clothes and other household stuff which were a bit cheaper than those in the high street shopping malls.
And so I went “marketing” happily with my wife pulling our own little trolley on weekends until one fine morning we met an elderly lady at the bus stand.
“Good morning, where are you going?” she asked with a smile.
“Marketing, ” I answered politely.
“You mean going to the wet market?” she questioned, spying our little trolley.
“No, that’s shopping and not marketing!” she corrected me, “marketing means doing sales and promotion.”
That set me thinking as to us, the word “marketing” had become a convenient and elastic word to apply for every type of buying activity.
But after that conversation, I became more mindful in using the word “shopping” and “marketing”.
Sadly, when I returned to Malaysia, I reverted to my lazy English and go “marketing”, fitting nicely into the local environment.
My trips to the wet market also had its unpleasant surprises. I remember one such experience was in Guangzhou, China, with my former colleague Foong Ten Chee who, like me, loves to comb the local wet market, especially the hawker food section.
That day we walked the wet and dirty alleys looking at stalls selling all kinds of meat, vegetables and a huge array of cooked food.
Suddenly he came to a dead stop. Pointing at a stall with a row of carcasses suspended on hooks, he cried, “Dogs!”.
I turned and saw a row of dog carcasses, bloodlessly white, hanging there for sale. I cringed at the unpleasant sight, quickened my steps before my knees went soft.
The sight just put me off even though the locals would mill around the stall as if it was selling pork, mutton or beef. The ugly sight still remains fresh in my mind even after many years.
I suppose it’s more a cultural difference that many of us cannot stand the sight of slaughtered dogs and yet feeling comfortable looking at slaughtered cow heads and goat heads with glassy eyes on display at the butcher’s stall!
Of course, if you were a bit more adventurous, you could also find stalls where snakes are being skinned alive. Much as I hate snakes, to skin them while they are still writhing is something hard to bear.
In Southern China, dog meat and snake soup are popular especially in autumn. Many believe these soups give them energy to warm up their bodies in preparation for the cold winter.
To many of us not accustomed to such food, it’s a big yuck!
Hoo Ban Khee is a former correspondent for The Star, in Beijing, China. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.