How Taiwan’s Largest Wet Market Was Torn Down and Came Back Stronger Than Ever

How Taiwan’s Largest Wet Market Was Torn Down and Came Back Stronger Than Ever
Photo Credit: Clarissa Wei

What you need to know

Jianguo Market — located in the center of Taichung — was considered one of Taiwan’s largest wet markets. Thanks to local activists, it has thrived despite a relocation.

Taichung resident Chan Hsiu-chu likes to tell people that Jianguo Market raised her. Growing up, her family lived on the fourth floor right above the old wet market, a bustling, messy bazaar that was home to hundreds of vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meat, and seafood from all over Taiwan on the daily. It was wonderfully chaotic — water sloshing on the ground, walkways packed with people from all over town, and used Styrofoam containers stacked on top of one another.

For Chan, it was the backdrop to a colorful and happy childhood. “When I lived here I was really happy,” she said. “The vendors took care of us and it was our playground.”

In the mid-20th century, Jianguo Market — located in the center of Taichung — was considered one of Taiwan’s largest wet markets and had as many as 2,000 stalls in its heyday. Like many other markets, it started out as an organic mass of peddlers and roadside stalls. Eventually, informal and haphazard structures were erected to protect vendors and their customers from the elements. When that proved to be too dangerous, the government set up a proper building for the bulging market in 1972, with vendors on the ground floor and apartment units on top. That’s where Chan lived.

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Photo Credit: Clarissa Wei
Chan Hsiu-chu at Jianguo Market.

“It was the heart of the city,” she reminisced, noting that the market was right next to the train station, which was convenient for commuters to stop in and buy their groceries for the week.

As time went by, the market swelled until it could no longer contain any more vendors, and people would set up shop on the streets next to it. “People started to say the area was dirty and chaotic and they wanted a change,” she said.

Eventually, the government announced that they would tear down the building and set up a new one across the street by 2016. But vendors were hesitant. “Even though you can just build a new building, you can’t replicate the relationships between neighboring stalls and the customers,” explained Chan, noting that many people feared that they would lose old customers with the move.

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Photo Credit: Clarissa Wei

Unlike shopping malls, which have high turnaround and thrive on novelty, wet markets rely on individual vendors — many of whom have been at the same stall for decades.

Determined to make sure the project didn’t flop, Chan decided to become an advocate for the market. When the vendors moved into the new space in 2016, she started the Facebook page Looking at Jianguo Market, where she regularly broadcasts stories and photographs about individual vendors.

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Photo Credit: Clarissa Wei

Her grassroots public relations outreach worked. Eventually, the initiative started to gain enough traction that she began to give talks at universities, write books, and lead tours. She’s even produced two documentaries on the people of the market.

“Every stall is like a book and has a long story,” she says.

Today, four years after its ribbon cutting, the new Jianguo Market is thriving. It has attracted a steady stream of foot traffic. Hygiene has improved. Wheelchair accessibility, industrial refrigerators, and even a breastfeeding room are now available. There are over 700 booths, and the entire building spans 2.23 hectares. Stalls are occupied by many of the same tenants of the old market, with multiple generations of family members working together.

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Photo Credit: Clarissa Wei

It’s an anomaly of a success story, especially in a country where wet markets have been in decline for decades, and revitalization efforts of both day and night markets (like with Shilin Night Market) have largely fallen flat.

“The difference is that the vendors here sell to the local community and don’t cater to tourists,” said Chan.

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Photo Credit: Clarissa Wei

Chan’s initiatives have clearly paid off. Her storytelling skills have connected with a new generation of shoppers at Jianguo. Younger generations, she said, are more used to eating out or buying groceries at supermarkets. But by introducing them to the people behind individual stalls, they gain a newfound appreciation for ingredients. “You lose out on a lot of knowledge in grocery stores, like where your food comes from,” she said.

While the shape, form, and location of the market have transformed over the decades, in many ways, Jianguo is still the same spontaneous, chaotic space that it was back in the ‘70s.

“This market has always been the heart of Taichung,” she said. “And it still is today.”

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Photo Credit: Clarissa Wei

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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