Illustrator Pat Wingshan Wong on creating a collaborative archive with the fishmongers of Billingsgate Market
As gentrification begins to push centuries-old London markets to the outskirts of the city, Pat captures the bantering and bartering of the famous Billingsgate Fish Market.
- Daniel Milroy Maher
- 28 September 2021
- Reading Time
- 3 minute read
Pat Wingshan Wong is an illustrator from Hong Kong. She moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art, from which she graduated with a master’s degree in visual communication. During her time there, she began working on a project titled Barter Archive, which explores and celebrates the history and community of the world-famous Billingsgate Fish Market in Canary Wharf. The market, which was moved from its original location by the River Thames in the City of London in 1982, is set to move once more in 2027 to Dagenham Dock, as a result of the city’s ongoing process of gentrification. This narrative of displacement was one of many factors that drew Pat to Billingsgate, which she has visited frequently for the past two years in an attempt to document its lively culture.
Her initial trips to the market were primarily for observation, so she could watch the hustle and bustle that Billingsgate is so well known for. Capturing these scenes, which take place around dawn as restaurant owners, chefs, and the occasional brave tourists make their way around the large central hall looking for deals, required Pat to forego a good night’s sleep. “I would wake up very early, at 5 am, to get the first tube from west London to Canary Wharf,” she recalls. “It would take me around 40 minutes and it was exhausting, because I had other coursework to do as well.” Keeping out of the way, she made quick drawings from the sidelines, sketching the exchanges happening at the various stalls and shops in the market, all the while noting the jovial atmosphere that seemed so ingrained in its culture. These tongue-in-cheek conversations and the jolly faces of the fishmongers felt so at odds wi†th the sterile structures of the surrounding Canary Wharf.
The gleaming skyscrapers that make up London’s central business district, which has come to symbolise huge amounts of wealth, stood in contrast with the seemingly humble nature of Billingsgate. As such, Pat felt the desire to document and archive its presence in Canary Wharf before its approaching departure. She wanted to connect with the fishmongers that have worked in the market for so many years. And what better way to form a relationship with them than through one of their long-standing traditions: bartering. She began swapping the sketches she made of them for certain sentimental objects that they felt represented their time at Billingsgate. Her collection included their iconic white jackets, boots, caps, porter badges, and certificates. She scanned and photographed these objects, slowly building an archive of material that could sit alongside her drawings (she retained the blue carbon copies of them during the trade).
“After bartering, we conducted video interviews with them about their memories of the objects and life in the fish market,” explains Pat. In doing so, she managed to create a community-based archive – built with the fishmongers, for the fishmongers. They were later invited to an exhibition of the material, titled Barter Outlet, at Piggy’s Cafe in the market. This show represented the culmination of two years worth of visits, conversations, and exchanges and was the first of several outlets for the project. Looking ahead, Pat plans to create Barter Auction, a performative exhibition that will “showcase a series of 3D printed fishbone ceramics of the collected objects,” and that will take place inside Canary Wharf’s Crossrail Place Roof Garden. Finally, the archive will make its way into book form, presented alongside photos of the market that have been taken by Pat. “It will show the historical stories and collective memories of more than twenty fish shops in the Billingsgate market,” she explains. “Created through the bartering of fifty observational drawings in exchange for fifty of the fishmongers’ personal objects.”
Pat Wingshan Wong: Barter Archive (Copyright © Pat Wingshan Wong, 2021)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.