ultramarinus – beyond the sea

CULTURE OF DISAPPEARANCE: GRAHAM STREET MARKET (嘉咸市集), Central (中環), Hong Kong

2014: A stall owner was about to wrapped up his day after a long day of work. 2014 and 2015 marked the final moments of Graham Street Market before half the market was knocked down for redevelopment. In this ever-changing city, documenting a moment in time is a way to battle against the power of forgetting. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Unlike shopping in a supermarket, causal interactions with vendors of Graham Street Market is one of the most interesting experiences of living in Central. It will certainly be missed when the old market is gone. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]

In Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (重慶森林), actors Faye Wong and Tony Leung often show up in an outdoor wet market in Central (中環) where fresh meat, vegetables, flowers, housewares, and even goldfish can be found, and so as outdoor street eateries known as dai pai dong (大牌檔). Defined by Graham Street (嘉咸街), Gage Street (結志街), and Peel Street (卑利街) between Hollywood Road (荷李活道) and Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中), Graham Street Market (嘉咸市集) is the city’s oldest wet market with about 160 years of history. Flanked both sides by small metal stalls, the sloped market streets present an iconic urban scenery where elderly, housewives, maids, and children rub shoulders with white-collar workers and foreign expatriates. Before the pandemic, tourists flocked to the market just to get a feel of the vibrant atmosphere and check out its decades-old shops. Artists and photographers also come to train their eyes by framing whatever that might catch their attention in a chance encounter. But it is the people from the surrounding neighbourhoods like us who regularly come for our daily needs, that have contributed in sustaining a street market culture in Central, just a block or two away from the central business district. In this ever-changing metropolis, every building, street, or neighborhood has a price tag. When the price is right, redevelopment seems to be inevitable. In 2007, a controversial announcement was made by the profit making Urban Renewal Authority to replace the Graham Street Market with HK$3.8 billion (about US$ 500 million) worth of housing, retail, office and hotel.

Months after we relocated to Hong Kong in 2014, we wrote a post on the Graham Street Market for the first time. Back then, demolition had already begun, but the majority of the market was still largely intact. 7 years have passed. While construction is still ongoing, 11 new market stores and a high rise apartment known as “My Central” have already been completed. Against the annoyance of dust, noise and construction truck traffic, Graham Street Market continues to serve the neighborhood today. In a relatively low dense neighbourhood, four new residential, hotel and commercial towers of about 30 storeys have been planned, along with their respective retail podiums. Being the heart of colonial Victoria City (維多利亞城), Central (中環) and Sheung Wan (上環) is officially the one and only old city of Hong Kong. While Hong Kong is no Rome or Paris, that doesn’t mean its old city is worthless. Instead, being an international metropolis frequented by tourists, many would expect the old city should be protected by stringent restrictions such as building height limits. Rather than keeping one or two historical facades as gimmick, the overall density, neighbourhood ambience, urban scale and fabric should be respected as a whole entity. Knocking down old neighbourhoods and replacing them with new towers is not a sensible way to rejuvenate a city, as Jane Jacobs pointed out decades ago. Not only would this kills the identity, diversity and character of the area, it would also destroy the neighbourhood’s self evolving power. In the words of Aldo Rossi, this is in fact destroying the genius loci (spirit of the place) of Old Central, like pinning four 30-storey towers right at the Campo de Fiori in Rome.

When I was a child, I used to visit Graham Street Market and the nearby Central Market (中環街市) with my aunt. Back then, I didn’t know that having such a destination of living heritage a block away from home was a privilege. Nor did I know that the market was actually an iconic filming location for photographs and movies. As a tourist attraction, the market is well received by foreigners to the point that even Queen Elizabeth II has come for a visit in 1975. For me as a child, the market was just a busy, noisy and sometimes slippery and bloody place where I could witness how chickens were slaughtered, cow’s and pig’s heads were hung for display, and live fish were de-scaled on a thick wood block. It was the 1980’s when purchased meat was still wrapped in butcher paper and tied with local salt water grass instead of using a plastic bag. Graham Street Market was where I first grasped a sense of what daily living is all about: gossiping with neighbours, picking the freshest food, bargaining with the hard working vendors, day in, day out. Three decades on, these scenes of street market culture are unfortunately fading. The “renewed” Graham Market shall be cleaner, less noisy, and perhaps have a few more planters and trees, but it may turn out that only gourmet stores selling Japanese wagyu, French cheese and Tasmanian cherries could survive the rent. The street market culture of Central might continue to fade until one day it only exists in historical photos.

2014: The market entrance at Gage Street is always packed with grocery shoppers and tourists. Today, the entire block beyond 7 Eleven has been demolished. [Junction of Gage Street and Cochrane Street right below Central – Mid-Levels Escalator, Central, 2014]
2014: One of the casualties in the area’s redevelopment, the 70-year-old Sun King Kee Noodles (新景記粉麵) shut its doors for good in March 2015. The entire block has since been demolished. [Gage Street, Central, 2014]
2021: Now wrapped in scaffolding, almost the entire northeastern half of Gage Street has been knocked down in the last few years. [Gage Street, Central, 2021]
2014: With wooden shutters and decorative roof parapet walls, a group of three pre-war shophouses at the intersection of Graham and Gage Street was a focus of discussion at the early stage of the redevelopment. Instead of fully preserving the historically listed buildings, the Urban Renewal Authority and developer had decided to demolish most of the structures and keep the outer facades only. [Gage Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Formerly occupying the corner of Gage and Graham Street near the three pre-war shophouses, Yiu Fat seafood (耀發海鮮) has been relocated to a new shop below “My Central”, the first completed residential tower in the redevelopment. [Junction of Gage Street and Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Other old shops who chose to be relocated to the 11 new shops below “My Central” includes Lee Hung Seafood (利鴻海鮮). Some owners complain that the new shop is much smaller than their old ones. [Gage Street, Central, 2014]
2021: Six new shops on Gage Street, including Lee Hung Seafood (利鴻海鮮), are some of the earliest to reopen for business after the first phase of redevelopment. Most of these shops are former market stalls in the area. What many concern is how the three pre-war shophouses at the intersection of Graham and Gage Street would become after the green scaffolding is removed in a few years’ time. [Gage Street, Central, 2021]
2014: Before redevelopment, most buildings in Graham Street Market were less than 10 storey high. Buying the old tenement buildings and replacing them with high rise luxurious apartment is one of the quickest way to make money in Hong Kong. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2021: At 37-storey high, “My Central” is the first residential tower completed in the market redevelopment. A 2020 property listing shows that a high level unit was selling for HK$48,960 per square feet (US$ 6,100). The asking price for the 674 sq.ft unit was HK$33,000,000 (US$ 4,255,500). To put it in context, if a tofu vendor at Graham Street Market sells a block of tofu for HK$4.00 each, she would need to sell over 12,000 blocks just to buy a square feet of residential space above her head. The HK$4.00 price has yet factored in any expense or production cost. Being the world’s most expensive property market for years, Hong Kong real estate is way out of reach for many ordinary Hong Kongers. [My Central at Gage Street, Central, 2021]
2014: Descending from Gage Street brings us into the crowded Graham Street Market. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Back in 2014, both sides of Graham Street were occupied by vendors and shops. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Graham Street Market has been enclosed by scaffolding and affected by construction noises in the past few years.. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Late 2014 was the last few months when Graham Street was still flanked by its old shops and market stalls. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: The redevelopment has forced a number of shop owners to consider retirement. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Some shops preferred to relocate to another retail space in the same area. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Situated near the junction of Graham and Wellington Street, this stall sells all kinds of local dried ingredients, such as nuts, dried tofu, dried mushrooms and Chinese preserved sausages. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: This kind of dried good grocery was quite common at street markets in the old days, but are now disappearing fast in Hong Kong. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Shopping in traditional market stalls offer us opportunities to chat with the vendors and asked for their recommendations on cooking techniques. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]
2020: For several years already, the market stalls on Graham Street have to cope with construction noises and dusts behind and above their heads. [Graham Street, Central, 2020]
2020: Today, between Wellington Street and Gage Street, one side of Graham Street is occupied by “My Central”, while market stalls on the opposite side are backed by a wall of construction barriers. [Graham Street, Central, 2020]
2021: New shops such as Smoke and Barrels, a New Orleans-style BBQ restaurant, has already moved into the podium of “My Central”. [Graham Street, Central, 2020]
2021: Behind the scaffolding structure and green coverings, the 140-year-old Wing Woo Grocery (永和號) awaits for its turn of makeover. [Junction of Wellington and Graham Street, Central, 2021]
2017: As the sole survivor of its architectural type in Hong Kong, the Wing Woo Grocery (永和號) building is a Grade 1 listed historical building meant to be preserved and renewed for retail use. Last year, people found that the roof of the building has been removed. [Junction of Graham Street and Wellington Street, Central, 2017]
2016: Thanks to netizen who shares a drone photograph online, we can still have a peek of what the original structure and roof were like. [Photo credit: Jack Chui at Chinese Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
2009: Also thanks to netizens who share their old photos online, we can have a glimpse of what the interior of Wing Woo Grocery (永和號) was like before it closed its doors in 2009 after 80 years in business. [Photo credit: Wikipedia user -Wpcpey, WiNG, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
2020: Established at Kowloon City in 1917, Kowloon Soy Co. Limited (九龍醬園) is one of the last company still using traditional method to make soy sauce. Many of their products are exported to the overseas, while their Graham Street store is their last remaining specialty shop in Hong Kong. [Graham Street near Queen’s Road Central, Central, 2020]
2020: Apart from Graham Street, Peel Street the other sloped market street lined with small shops. [Peel Street near Hollywood Road, Central, 2020]
2014: Compared to Graham Street, Peel Street has a larger concentration of shops selling non-food merchandise. [Peel Street, Central, 2014]
2014: The corrugated metal cover atop the market stall provides decent protection against dusts and debris from adjacent construction site of “My Central”. [Peel Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Before popularization of supermarkets, citizens in Hong Kong relied on these small variety shop to get all sorts of household merchandise. [Peel Street, Central, 2014]
2014: Not too long ago, even goldfish could be purchased from the street market stalls at Graham Street Market. [Junction of Peel Street and Wellington Street, Central, 2014]
2014: These goldfish vendors are disappearing fast across the city, especially on Hong Kong Island. [Junction of Peel Street and Wellington Street, Central, 2014]
2014: The story of the changing Graham Street Market exemplifies the fate of many old neighbourhoods in Hong Kong. [Graham Street, Central, 2014]

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