stories about strangers

heng street markets // suzhou

A Chinese wet market where chicken heads roll and wanton soup is the star attraction.

heng street markets


There's a plucked, pink chicken lying limply on a plastic chopping block in the middle of the cramped Suzhou food markets. The stallholder has a tight grip over the poor bird's legs and desperate, flapping wings, and before I register what is about to happen next, the cleaver slams down and the chicken's sliced head rolls off the board to where its former mates are unknowingly waiting in line.


Asian markets are shamelessly gruesome. They're a very visual reminder that blood, guts, death and pain are all a natural part of life; the local's bemused looks at our shock and disgust show just how censored we are about where our food really comes from. On our travels through China so far, I've noticed that food here is as fresh as it gets. Meat is rarely sold packaged or pre-prepared – the animal is either slaughtered in front of you, or sold alive for you to kill come dinnertime. Noodles, dumplings and breads are also never from a packet, and are mostly all made to order.


I'm not afraid of a little blood, and my love for finding new, foreign ingredients outweighs my repulsion for chopped heads. The Suzhou Heng Street markets, however, were something else. Running alongside the Fengmen River, the markets are a long pedestrian street full of vegetable stalls, noodle makers, bakers, spice merchants and of course, butchers. Fish flap for freedom on old scales; sad, defeated poultry stand squashed together in cages awaiting their fates, and skinned carcasses hang like glowing red lanterns.


Pushing the death and gore to the back of our minds, there was plenty of new food to try. A pretty woman sat out the front of packed soup shop, luring us in with her incredible ability to fold pork wonton at lightning speed. Crowds congregated at the steaming mantou bun shop for their latest fluffy batch. We bought a box of freshly toasted sesame and chilli peanuts, and the pork zongzi, bamboo-wrapped triangles of sticky rice filled with a rich roasted pork, were a satisfying lunch for $1.


But the best was saved til last. At the very end of the markets was the outdoor dentist, where some old lady was getting a rotten tooth fixed by the local dentist. Red Bull can full of cotton balls, a dirty bottle of methylated spirits, and a crowd of people having a creep, there was seemingly nothing strange about this normally intimate encounter. But here at the Heng Street markets, anything goes. Whether its feathers, scales, or even teeth being plucked, it's all happening right in front of your eyes.


Photography: Leigh Griffiths
Words: Eloise Basuki
All words and images are under copyright © 2019