Text and photographs by Branden Chen
For some, a city’s night market is just what the doctor ordered. China’s vast territory is scattered with numerous cities of different flavors, but they all have one thing in common: Each features at least one night market where food-lovers can find genuine indigenous delicacies.
The Gulou Night Market is usually the highlight of a visit to Kaifeng, a historic city in Henan Province. There, not only can visitors sample local snacks, but also experience the area’s unique folklore. Soaking up the Kaifeng dialect as vendors hawk their commodities can lead to greater insight into local night life and the city’s unique street culture.
Historically known as Dongjing, Kaifeng is one of China’s seven most famous ancient capitals. Its history as an imperial capital can be traced all the way back to the Xia Dynasty (c. 2100-1600 B.C.). And the Gulou Night Market is almost as old as the city itself. According to Records of the Dreamlike Dongjing from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the night market was”bustling with vendors and customers until midnight, and then reopened before dawn” during that era.
Located in downtown Kaifeng’s Gulou Square, the Gulou Night Market is now the largest of its kind in the city. When night falls, throngs of people flood the square, and more than 100 food carts line up on both sides, leaving only a narrow aisle for the flow of people. Most vendors cook on the spot, which results in thick steam and alluring aromas. The melodic cries of pitchmen and the clinking of tableware echo through the air, making the night market the hottest place in Kaifeng. A photographer once showed his foreign friends pictures he took of the crowded night market. They were stunned at the spectacular scene of so many people flooding into the market to feast every night - and even bad weather doesn’t stop them.
In addition to diners who may feel dazed from too many options, the night market also features many street performers including pop singers strumming guitars and silver-haired artists bellowing traditional Henan Opera while playing erhu (two-stringed bowed instrument) and castanets.