Located in the Jordan area of Hong Kong, Temple Street Night Market is as popular with tourists as it is with locals. Built on the location of a Tin Hau temple during the Qing Dynasty, the area has maintained none of its spiritual aura – but still does wonders for the senses.
The streets come to life after dusk, when neon lights and single white light bulbs illuminate table after table of colourful souvenirs, DVDs, miniature Mao statues, counterfeit handbags and more. Tacky memorabilia and cheap products vie for Hong Kong dollars, as sellers tout their wares to anyone who will give them a minute.
It is, however, the fringes of the market that are the most interesting. Just outside the Temple Street gate – along three sides of a nondescript multistory car park – fortune tellers, karaoke opera singers and sex toy vendors emerge nightly to populate one of the most colourful corners of the city.
Each of the three groups occupies a side of the car park to form a U-shape. The fortunetellers dominate Market Street and the opera singers on Temple Street. While the karaoke singers wail loudly into cheap microphones and are heard before seen, the fortunetellers quietly go about predicting the future. They are in fact perfect neighbours.
The sex vendors, on the other hand, occupy the sidewalks of Shanghai Street. About a dozen stalls selling a multitude of sex toys, costumes, and other sex-related paraphernalia open for business every evening around five pm and finish close to midnight.
For an industry that uses adjectives such as pleasure, excitement and joy, few smiles are to be found amongst these stalls. When vendors can be bothered to look up from their newspapers, they mostly look bored.
People on this stretch of Shanghai Street are not here to chat. Getting anyone to open up about their business is not easy on these triad-controlled pavements. One vendor’s smile however gives away a friendly streak and takes a few questions.
He says he doesn’t like this job, but it’s better than what he did before. Also, there are few other jobs going so he is grateful for this one. In the five years since taking the job, he has served clients between the ages of 18 and 80 – though he insists he will not sell to “students” under 18.
There is no defined target audience for these goods, as the variety of products and prices testifies. Most products used to be made in Hong Kong, the vendor tells us, but today they mostly come from China (“cheap”) and Japan (“good quality”).
Customers are even more difficult to talk to. We finally find one willing to talk, though he too demands anonymity. He tells me he is not a regular and just wanted to try a certain product. Having left Hong Kong when he was young, he recently returned and found the Temple Street marked changed. He says it used to be bigger. In true Hong Kong style, he does not lament times gone by, but simply accepts that “everything is changing”.
As people look rather than buy, it is easy to wonder how much longer these sex toy vendors will continue peddling their wares publicly on the street rather than online – where most of the industry’s customers have moved. For now they are part of Hong Kong’s colourful and diverse scenery.