From the exotic to the mundane, Hong Kong markets sell it

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The small, brightly lit booth is adorned with Chinese calligraphy and signs of the zodiac. A fortune teller sits at his table, deep in concentration while his customers, a young couple, wait anxiously. Softly stroking the long strands of his wispy beard, the seer predicts their future, perhaps good career prospects or whether their decision to buy a new house is a wise one.

There are many kinds of fortune telling on offer: tarot cards, palmistry, reading of facial muscles. Visitors can even have a parrot predict their future.

It's a scene replicated across Hong Kong; the fortune teller is just one of many operating in the city's busy, nighttime markets.

The bustling night markets -- and daytime ones, too -- typify life in Hong Kong. They're scenes of incredible activity and energy for the city's 7 million inhabitants, not to mention a vast number of tourists.

It might seem to the casual observer that every Hong Kong native is born with a shopping gene, since the city's myriad retail outlets -- from huge, glitzy malls to the street markets and the smallest mom-and-pop shops -- are always jam-packed and sales are brisk. (A word of caution: Hong Kong is no longer the cheap shopping destination it once was.)

When they are not shopping, Hong Kongers seem to be eating. The scope of eateries is vast, ranging from high-class restaurants in top hotels to roadside stalls where locals grab a snack before dashing off for more shopping.

Market economy

Much has been made of mainland China's transition to capitalism, but Hong Kong, under British rule until 1997, has always had a market economy -- literally. Much of the city's trade, not to mention wheeling and dealing, has traditionally taken place at its open-air markets. 

In the bird market on Yuen Po Street in the Mong Kok district of Kowloon, home to many of the city's TW.com photo by Kenneth Kiesnoskimost famous street markets, avian aficionados who maintain the Chinese tradition of keeping small, caged songbirds wander among the 70-odd stalls in search of specimens with superior chirping qualities. Retired men in particular often gather on this garden-like street to discuss the affairs of the day while indulging this ancient passion.

All matter of bird-related paraphernalia is available at the Yuen Po market, from the most intricately carved wooden cages to bags of live grasshoppers, a favorite songbird snack.

The bird market is generally open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. daily.

Just around the corner, at the Flower Market in Mong Kok, boxes of blossoms from mainland China -- where labor costs are lower -- are constantly being unloaded from trucks.

Hong Kong residents descend on this market, open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., not only for flowers but for its bounty of bamboo, which is said to bring good luck.

Peddling more good fortune, the Goldfish Market holds sway on nearby Tung Choi Street. Hong Kong residents maintain that a goldfish bowl properly positioned in the home ensures positive vibes, according to the concepts of feng shui.

The Goldfish Market, open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., is a colorful distraction, with its storefronts covered with rows of clear, plastic bags full of multihued goldfish, fighting betas and other aquarium quarry.

A bit farther up Tung Choi Street lies the Ladies' Market, an amazing five to six blocks of towering market stalls that are assembled and disassembled each day.

Here, the vendors specialize in inexpensive women's wear and accessories, but menswear, kids' clothes and toys are also available.

Clustered alongside the Ladies Market near Fa Yuen Street are Mong Kok's electronics and sportswear markets. Although referred to as such, these are less markets than retail districts of somewhat pricey shops selling the aforementioned goods.

When shopping in electronics and jewelry shops in particular, look for the Quality Tourism Services (QTS) Scheme insignia in the window. It signifies the shop has been certified as legitimate by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Nighttime delights

Other parts of Kowloon and Hong Kong offer street market delights, as well. Our friend the fortune teller holds court at the Temple Street Night Market in Yau Ma Tei. 

In contrast to Tung Choi Street in Mong Kok, Temple Street is noted for men's wear and masculine accessories -- hence its other moniker, the Men's Street Market.

In addition to the haphazard haberdashery, the Temple Street Night Market, which opens around 4 p.m. but kicks into high gear after sunset, is awash with vendors hawking everything and anything, from CDs and DVDs to hardware and luggage, until 11 p.m.

The Temple Street Night Market is also noted for its food stalls, serving fresh seafood and hotpot dishes. Fortune-tellers gather at the Yau Ma Tei end of the market alongside amateur Chinese opera performers and enthusiasts.

Yau Ma Tei is also home to the Jade Market, a covered bazaar flanked with traditional Chinese gates and packed with some 450 vendors peddling jade in all forms as well as other souvenirs that are often kitschy. Chinese tradition holds that jade wards off evil spirits and protects travelers from harm.

There's also a series of jade shops nearby on so-called Jade Street, which is the portion of Canton Road lying between Kansu Street and Jordan Road. The market is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

Flea market fans should consider heading to the Sham Shui Po neighborhood, where they can prowl the stalls of the Apliu Street Flea Market for antiques, coins and used electronics.

Farther afield, in Stanley on the southern shore of Hong Kong Island proper, Stanley Market's old fishing lanes feature vendors selling Chinese artwork, silk collectibles and curios. The market runs from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

To sample a traditional Hong Kong seafood market, travelers can head to Tai O Fishing Village on Lantau Island.

The fishing lanes of Tai O, famous for its canals lined by rickety houses on stilts, are packed with open-air stalls filled with fresh and dried seafood, including oddities such as whole shark carcasses. It's got to be seen, and smelled, to be believed.

Visit the Hong Kong Tourism Board's Web site at www.discoverhongkong.com/usa. Or call the HKTB at (212) 421-3382 in New York, (415) 781-4587 in San Francisco or (310) 208-4582 in Los Angeles.

To contact Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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