It is no coincidence that Hong Kong was able to establish itself as an international shopping destination. Without sales tax and tariffs on most goods, geographical proximity to China and other manufacturing Asian countries, decades of expertise in sourcing, trading and global logistics, large demand on products from all over the world and at every price ranges, all contribute to the relatively low consumer prices and high merchandise variety in Hong Kong. Bilingual with English and Chinese also help to cement Hong Kong as a popular shopping paradise for international tourists, receiving over 65 million visitors a year (2018). To talk about the development of the retail scene in Hong Kong, it is impossible not to touch upon Causeway Bay, the city’s prime shopping district. And to talk about the emergence of Causeway Bay, the story should trace back to 1960.
On 3rd of November 1960, thousands of spectators arrived at the intersection of Great George Street (記利佐治街) and Paterson Street (百德新街) to witness a 4000-guest cocktail party for the grand opening of Daimaru (大丸). Back then, little people would foresee that a new upscale Japanese department store in the warehouse dominated East Point (東角) would rapidly and dramatically transform the urban landscape into a vibrant shopping hub that we now call Causeway Bay. It is no exaggeration to say that the arrival of Daimaru was revolutionary to most Hongkongers: 400 staff trained in Japanese etiquette, row of staff bowing at entrance to greet customers, customer-first services, fixed prices, delivery services, split payments, trial eats, attractive displays, soft background music, facial care services, 60% products made in Japan, and even ladies dressed in kimono to serve customers for trial makeups. These may sound no big deal today, but in 1960 the innovative shopping experience has become an instant legend, drawing almost 100,000 customers on the second day of business. After Daimaru, the next two decades saw another three Japanese department stores arriving in Causeway Bay. In its heyday, over 500,000 sf of retail space in Causeway Bay were split among the four department stores: Daimaru (大丸 1960 – 1998), Matsuzakaya (松坂屋 1975 – 1998), Mitsukoshi (三越 1981 – 2006) and SOGO (崇光 1985 – present). From then on, Causeway Bay has become the most essential shopping district in Hong Kong nicknamed as Little Ginza. The Japanese department stores have become synonymous to fancy home appliances, trendy fashion, delightful toys and mouthwatering food-hall, just as Daimaru has become synonymous to Causeway Bay, where public minibuses designated to the area would simply put Daimaru’s Chinese name dai yuen (大丸) as the destination.
Japan’s “Lost Decade” economic stagnation in 1990’s and the shift of consumer culture towards shopping malls significantly affect the Japanese department stores. After 38 years, Daimaru ended its business in Hong Kong in 1998, the same year when Matsuzakaya also closed its store at Patterson Street. Mitsukoshi was doing fine in Causeway Bay, generating 40% of its overseas earning from Hong Kong alone, but was forced to exit the city in 2006 due to demolition of its host building, Hennessy Centre, to make way for the much taller Hysan Place Shopping Centre. Thanks to a takeover by a local billionaire, SOGO remains as today’s anchoring landmark at the iconic street crossing that defines the very heart of Causeway Bay. With Asia’s largest LED screen installed in 2017, SOGO and the little triangular patch of pedestrian entrance forecourt remain as the most popular meeting spot in the area. Apart from financial crisis and change of consumer taste, one of the biggest issues behind the department stores’ inevitable demise was probably Hong Kong’s skyrocketing real estate price and retail rent in the past two decades, especially in Causeway Bay. In 2011, a 1000 sf (plus 600 sf mezzanine) noodle shop near Times Square was sold for a whopping HK$100m (US$ 12.7m). Without factoring in salary and utility expenses, the shop would need to sell 500 noodle bowls each day for 19 years in order to see the same HK$100m on their balance sheet. Eight years later in 2019, the same retail space changed hands again for HK$180m (US$ 22.9m). 2019 also saw Causeway Bay having the world’s most expensive retail rent for the sixth time since 2013, at US$2,671/ sf annually. In comparison, Upper 5th Avenue in New York was at US$2,250, London’s New Bond Street at US$1,744, Paris’ Avenue des Champs Elysées at US$1,519, Milan’s Via Monte Napoleone at US$1,466, and Tokyo’s Ginza at US$1,219. At such rate, not many shops, especially a multi-level department store, can manage a consistent revenue to commit a long term lease. Interestingly, the rent has dramatically dropped in recent years due to the pandemic.
From the rise of Daimaru, to establishing Causeway Bay as a shopping paradise and the world’s highest retail rental market, to the declining retail scene due to overinflated rents and recent pandemic, a cycle might have come to a full circle. Not only did the Japanese department stores help to define the development and urban landscape of Causeway Bay, they also contribute on establishing Hong Kong’s consumer culture that worth US$5.2 billion a month (2016), and successful build up Hongkongers’ common interest on Japanism, from consumer products and hospitality to food and culture. A generation has gone by since the closure of Daimaru, Japan remains as the no. 1 travel destination for Hongkongers, even for youngsters who have never experienced Little Ginza in Hong Kong.
Six years before the handover of Hong Kong to China, Taiwanese songwriter and singer Lo Tayou (羅大佑) published a song called “Queen’s Road East” (皇后大道東) in 1991. Emerged as a satirical reflection of Hongkongers’ collective feelings in the eve’s of the handover, the song became an instant hit. Even today, the song still offers an interesting cultural reference to understand the city’s unsettling moment before 1997. In the face of Hong Kong’s social uncertainties and imminent changes in near future, lyricist Albert Leung (林夕) made use of a wide range of symbols in the song, from “portrait on the coin” and “noble friend” to signify Queen Elizabeth II, to “waves of pedestrians” to suggest the mass exodus of Hongkongers. But the biggest symbolism is in fact the name “Queen’s Road East” itself. Physically divided into three sections, namely Queen’s Road East, Queen’s Road Central, and Queen’s Road West, Queen’s Road was used in the song to symbolize the three main players in the city’s story: “East” for Hong Kong, “West” for Britain, and “Central” for China (in reference to “Middle Kingdom”, the Chinese name of China). While “Queen” is unmistakably a reference to the city’s colonial past, the historical and economic significance of Queen’s Road has suggested a meaning way beyond colonialism. It is in fact a symbol of the city’s success story. As Hong Kong’s first main road, Queen’s Road was home to the first city hall, first post office, first luxury hotel, first bank headquarters, first residences of government officials, first business district, etc. After almost 180 years of urban transformations, its importance in the commercial heart remains vital to this date. The rich history and symbolism of Queen’s Road has made it a sensible choice for Lo Tayou and Albert Leung in their iconic song, and a reference point to tell the story of Hong Kong.
For its architecture and luxury shops, Queen’s Road Central is indeed a popular destination for both foreign visitors and local Hongkongers. Constructed between 1841 and 1843, Queen’s Road was originally named Main Street (大馬路). It ran through the first business district in the city between Sai Ying Pun (西營盤) and Central (中環). The road was soon renamed as Queen’s Road in tribute to Queen Victoria. As the road further extended in the west and east direction, Queen’s Road was eventually divided into three main sections: West, Central and East. Connecting Sheung Wan (上環) and Central along the island’s original shoreline, Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中) has long been considered as a synonym of Downtown Hong Kong. Subsequent land reclamations in the next 180 years pushed Queen’s Road Central further and further inland. The business district has long extended way beyond its original extent around Queen’s Road Central. Yet, buildings along the road continue to be sold, torn down and replaced by taller replacements, from the 19th century Neo-classical structures to the 20th century Modernist buildings, and then to the contemporary glassy skyscrapers. Due to its historical significance, Queen’s Road Central is probably one of the most documented street in Hong Kong. Having the historical photographs in hand while taking a brief tour of Queen’s Road Central offers a fruitful way to understand the tale of constant changes, and endless cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction in one of the fastest growing metropolises in modern history.