Singing Fish Heads at the Chaoyang Wet Markets

Today, is my first culture shock in China. In a big way.


There are fish everywhere – all for sale at Chaoyang Wet Market.

With so many sizes, shapes, species, and smells, I’m going into sensory overdrive.

Then, dead in front, I spot three large fish heads, all standing upright on a wooden cutting bench.

While openly staring, I feel my American expat friend, Gina, lean up to me, “Keep looking and just wait a second,” she says, smirking.

A split second later, one of the cut fish heads opens its mouth as wide as it can, letting out an almighty gasp.

Adding to the surrealism, the other two heads on either side follow suit and now all three are opening and closing their big gobs, one after the other.

It’s as if they are singing.

Today, is my first culture shock in China. In a big way.

The Wet Markets: Seafood Shangri-la

Everyone talks about the ‘Wet Markets’ of Zhuhai as a great spot for fresh seafood, spices, fruits and vegetables, and ‘open-air’ meat cuts.

Heading to the markets this morning, with my expat expert friends, Gina and Caro in tow, I’ve no idea what I’ll find.

Located about 15 minutes drive from Huafa New Town, in the Xiangzhou District, the markets are inside a huge building divided into three levels.

Voilà! The entrance to the seafood abyss
Voilà! The entrance to the seafood abyss

At the ground floor, is fresh seafood galore, at the second; dried produce, fruits, vegetables and meats, and on the third floor, your standard dirt-cheap clothing stores.

So what’s it like?

The wet markets are interesting, to say the least. And not your passive-aggressive ‘opening-a-Christmas-gift “Oh, that’s interesting” variety either.


The markets hold many things I’ve never seen in the ocean before, let alone on display to consider for my dinner plate.

At the stalls, numbers are shouted between sellers and buyers, while live prawns leap from their holding pools and onto the floor (only to be scooped up seconds later and returned to the shallow water).

There are some sizable fish here, too, so much so that fishmongers bring out the heavy-duty knives and hammers, to slice through the cut.

Nearly all of the crabs here are live, either tied with reeds or seen scrambling out of bamboo baskets.

A crab shell cracked open to show the freshness.

My friends tell me, given the market’s central, convenient location, the seafood is not as inexpensive as you’d expect. Though, the market does hold some difficult to find items like salmon fillets and Geoduck.

Warning: Some people may find the next section of this post distressing as it contains images that some may find disturbing.

Culture Shock at the Seafood Stalls

Let me preface this by saying, I am not a vegetarian. Seafood is far from my favourite type of food but I do occasionally enjoy a snapper or prawns.

As I mentioned in my introduction, the ‘singing’ fish heads, was enough to turn me a little pale.

Moving further into the market and through the aisles, I began realizing I may be in a little deep: seeing a dismembered crocodile, sting rays, sharks, and some magnificent rainbow fish and parrot fish, tied alive and left on display.

I’m no expert, but the large fish on the right may be a blue Bumphead Parrotfish, an endangered species.


Growing up in Australia, and just previously living in France, this was very different for me. Speaking openly, it disturbed me.

It did so because I am not used to seeing these things dead or near death. Rather, I am more used to paying tourist dollars to go and spot them in the wild and take photos.

Cultural Sensitivity vs Personal Ethics

My reaction made me question my ethics against, what I thought was my rather robust level, of cultural sensitivity and understanding.

I’m surprised by my disapproval. And then surprised further, that I’m not being culturally open to others’ ideas and ways of life. And so the circle of confusion continues.

Ethics Away from Home

“Context is important when deciding what is right and what is wrong” – T. Donaldson, ‘Ethics, Away From Home’.

I am sure as my journey continues, I will explore this idea of ‘Ethics, Away From Home’ in much further detail. But for now, I agree with Author Thomas Donaldson that “Context is important when deciding what is right and what is wrong.”

Our values are often a reflection of the environment and norms we grew up with.

Why does my Italian neighbour (in Oz) have no problem cutting up a sheep? Because a farm boy sees an animal differently than a city boy.

From what I can tell, the pet culture in China is not as established here as in other countries. So for the most part, animals are seen as a food source, and nothing more.

I’m interested to hear the views of other people, or expats, on the issue of cultural understanding vs personal ethics, so please feel free to leave your ideas in comments section below.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul B says:

    The singing fish heads was a shocker for me too. I didn’t know what to do so just did a bit of a nervous laugh and filmed it on my phone. But the worst I saw was in a fish market in Hong Kong where I saw a fish being filleted alive. Nothing deserves that treatment, but alas it drew attention and ultimately sales. How much more fresh can you get I suppose?


    1. WhoMovedMyDumpling says:

      Wow, what an experience… as fresh as possible does seem to be the aim. Store-bought frozen fillets are just fine with me for now!


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