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.
Before leaving Hong Kong for Canada, I spent the first decade of my life in the same Central Sheung Wan (中上環) area where our current home is located. The sloped streets and granite stairs in the neighborhood have featured heavily in my childhood memories. Walking up and down the century-old pedestrian stairs, a unique urban feature that we call “ladder streets” (樓梯街) in Hong Kong, was part of my childhood routine. I used to hate these stairs, especially when climbing them to school during summer months. Now returning as an adult, my emotions towards ladder streets have dramatically changed. Each worn treads, old balustrade and aged retaining walls seem to be remnants from a bygone era of the city, as well as my distant childhood.
Behind the glittering skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island stands Victoria Peak, also called Tai Ping Shan (太平山) in Chinese. The once imposing ridge line is pretty much hidden nowadays, unless one ventures far enough out into the harbour for a distant view. In fact, the island’s hilly terrain once posed a big challenge for the British colonial government when founding the city in 1841. On one hand, they were determined to erect a waterfront city by land reclamation from the sea. On the other hand, they managed to conquer the unforgiving terrain of Victoria Peak, levelling slopes into terraces for housing constructions, and connecting the residential terraces with steep paths and ladder streets. From then on, the network of ladder streets connect the hillside communities of West District, Sheung Wan, Central and Wanchai with the business district along the waterfront.
No one has a concrete idea of how many ladder streets remain in Hong Kong until 2013 when Melissa Cate Christ of Hong Kong University and her team on the Stair Culture project attempted to map out the ladder streets in the city. In their mapping exercise, they found over 3000 stairs in Central-Western District (中西區) alone. Not only has their work illustrated the astonishing concentration of ladder streets in a small area of old Hong Kong (about 12.4 sq. km), they also highlighted the danger ladder streets are facing today, the importance of preserving the ladder streets and the positive impact these stairs have contributed to the livability and urban character of the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Over a century of urban makeovers, many ladder streets have become obsolete when public escalators, elevators and asphalt roads were built to bring busy urbanites up and down the hill at a much faster pace. Some have been demolished to make way for modern developments, while some have been reduced to dark narrow alleyways sandwiched between highrise blocks. Functionally, the century old staircases may no longer fit well into modern urban planning. However, beyond merely moving people, the ladder streets play a crucial role in defining the historical identity of the city and providing peaceful alternative routes for pedestrians. A number of ladder streets have become iconic backdrops for tourists, filmmakers, photographers, and advertisers, who come to seek for the city’s nostalgic, peaceful and cozy ambience, in contrast to the fast-paced and somewhat stressful financial district just a stone throw away. From movies to TV shows, ladder streets have featured in a variety of media, formulating a collective memory not just for us who live in the area, but also for all Hong Kongers.