I wish I could say there was bright sunshine for Okinawa Day at Spitalfields Market yesterday, but no, it was a typical English summer’s day – grey with intermittent rain. At least the contrast with the images of Okinawa, a tropical paradise of sun, sand and coral reefs, must have pleased the travel companies.
Okinawa is a chain of hundreds of small islands (the Ryukyu islands) stretching south from Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, to Taiwan. Okinawa Day is an annual event that showcases Okinawan culture. There are performances of traditional Okinawan arts (Ryukyu Music, Eisa Dance, karate demonstrations), Okinawan food on sale, and Japan travel guides ready to tell you everything you need to know about visiting Okinawa.
What interested me was the juxtaposition of a Japanese festival with the historic Spitalfields Market, itself a contrast between old and new. There’s been a market on this site since 1638 but the present Old Spitalfields Market was built between 1885 and 1893 and is now Grade II listed. I took a walk around, starting with a look at the south eastern block on Brushfield Street heading towards Christ Church with Julian Wild’s sculpture Spring Greens ahead of me.
Around the corner the central vehicle entrance on Commercial Street has ‘rusticated gauged brick spandrels, stucco keystone, panels of cut and rubbed brick in floral design’ (I’m quoting from the official Grade II listing).
The gate is called Spitfire Mk.Vb W3311 Gate because the Spitalfields fruit and veg traders clubbed together to buy a Spitfire fighter plane in World War II. They named it ‘Fruitation’.
The central plaque has a coat of arms and is inscribed ‘Spitalfields Market Rebuilt by Robert Homer during the year of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee’ which was in 1887.
And the point where the red brick with stuccoed gables, steeply pitched plain tiled roof and slab chimney stacks of the old market come to an abrupt end, to be replaced by Norman Foster-designed glass boxes.
How did this happen? Well, Spitalfields Market is on the border between Spitalfields in Tower Hamlets, where there’s a strong campaign for the preservation of old buildings, and the City of London, which commands some of the world’s highest property prices. When the old fruit, veg and flower market moved out to Leyton in 1991, big business moved in, eventually getting permission to demolish half the old market and build high-value office space in its place.
The old market still has its original shops, though they’re now occupied by upmarket fashion chains, and a flourishing vintage and antiques market under the restored roof.
It extends to the new end of the market but there the life seems to drain out of it and the edges are populated by empty stalls.
Which brings us back to Okinawa Day at the Brushfield St corner of the new market where Kenny Hunter’s sculpture I Goat surveys the scene from its vantage point on a stack of packing crates.
The sweeping sail of the lightweight canopy provides shelter for the performers and audience, an eclectic mix of Japanese and European faces that is typical of London diversity, but perhaps not what you’ll find if you actually visit Okinawa.
Some of the food on sale also seemed more creative than traditional (and none the worse for that) but I stopped short of trying the spam nigiri.
If you want to visit Spitalfields market, it’s a short walk from Liverpool St Station. If you penetrate further into Spitalfields itself you’ll find the Georgian houses of Fournier St a short walk away.