No trip to Hong Kong is really complete without a visit to the bird market. That is something so weirdly alluring and repellent about it. But it is also, a little window into the soul of a city that has long been glitzy on the outside, but perhaps less so on the inside.
It isn’t the sounds or the smells that grab ones attention first. Weirdly, it is the stacks of little orange plastic cages. They are placed, one atop the other, perhaps ten high, and the columns are packed against each other. Inside each one of these little cages (and they are no more than eight inches in any dimension) there hops a bird.
The bird might be as small as a sparrow, but it might not be. Some birds seem engaged in a demented dance, like a perpetual motion machine. One must pay attention, for the moves are sudden and quick. But there it stands on its perch, now clinging to the front bars, now facing backwards, now hanging from the rafters, now on the ground, now back on the perch. Again and again and again.
Larger birds take the moves more casually, perhaps for fear of bumping their head. Wonderfully, the most casual of all, the biggest of all, are in no cage at all. The great parrots with their fine red, blue, yellow and green plumage stand arrogantly on the open air metal perches to which a leg is manacled. As if the world were but a moment’s entertainment, one parrot before me lazily picked a pumpkin seed from the bowl beside him, cracked it open with his beak , swallowed the kernel and left the empty husk to fall away. This one deigned to let me watch. Others did not. Though one bird greeted me with a hearty “Hello”, I was soon told my welcome had been overstayed. “Goodbye now,” he barked.
If the birds and especially the parrots are the showy, flashy side of the market, there is a side too that tells of heritage and craftsmanship, perhaps of hard work. The little plastic cages might suffice for the market, but they are not quite the thing for a display cage in the sitting room. What about a cylindrical cage, worked of wood or wicker, with Victorian-esque curves and adornments to the bars? What about a tiny china bowl for the water and the seed? What about a hand-finished perch? Chinese craftsmanship goes hand in hand with the Chinese love of birds.
Of course, there is a third side too. Pumpkin seeds might be nice to pass the time with if you are a parrot, but sometimes something meatier is called for. Locusts, crickets, maggots: all can be bought live and all are grown, cared for and hand harvested in the market.
The market, then, is Hong Kong in miniature. The birds are the star attraction, the Gucci and the Burberry of Central. They are nice to look at, but how many does one really need? The cage makers find their counterparts in the glass and steel cages of Hong Kong’s financial centre. It is all very impressive, and no doubt hard work, but perhaps a little irrelevant to many who pass on by.
And the meal worm handlers? They, perhaps, are the ones left behind.