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.
In a spring Saturday afternoon, we went to a familiar stall at Graham Street Market (嘉咸街市集) to pick up some fruits. While the male owner gathered the fruits we wanted, his wife was busy feeding a big cat tuna-like snacks with a small spoon. The cat sat gratefully on the table to chew on its snacks with its eyes closed. The lady gently stroked the cat’s back and proudly praised about its silky fur. We soon found out that the cat actually didn’t belong to the fruit stall owners. It was a guest from the adjacent dried goods stall. Like many other cats in the open street market, the lucky one we encountered that day would roam freely and welcomed by different stall owners in the area everyday.
Such beautiful human-cat relationship is not uncommon in the old neighbourhoods of Central-Sheung Wan (中上環) and adjacent Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), where decades old shops and market stalls provide the perfect havens for cats to linger. In return for all the food and love from shop owners, the cats would catch mice, attract pedestrian’s attention, and most importantly, keep the shop owners company during the day. Similar to Japan, where the belief of maneki-neko or “beckoning cat” (招き猫) has been around since the Edo Period, shop cats in Hong Kong are often regarded as an integral member of the business. In recent years, these shop cats are often referred to as “feline shopkeepers” (貓店長). These cute shopkeepers have become beloved mascots of the old neighbourhoods, where shop doors are always kept open to the street from morning till dusk.
For 50 years, lampposts, electrical boxes, concrete pillars, pavements, benches, planters, and retaining walls on the streets of Hong Kong could be seen as one large canvas for the “King of Kowloon” (九龍皇帝) to leave his unique calligraphy works. Sometimes, he wrote to proclaim his ancestral land ownership of the Kowloon Peninsula before the British rule, while at other times he would write about his family. Seen by many as acts of a crazy man, the “King of Kowloon” or Tsang Tsou Choi (曾灶財) was probably the most well known graffiti artist the city had seen in the 20th century. Fined by the government numerous times, insulted by neighbours, and even disowned by his own family, Tsang Tsou Choi was mocked by Hong Kong for decades. Whenever his calligraphy was washed or painted over by the authorities, he would restore the works right after. His works were largely seen as public nuisance until the 1990’s, when local artists, fashion designers, art directors, interior designers, furniture makers, graphic designers, musicians began to use Tsang’s unique calligraphy on design products. In his final years, Tsang’s works finally began to gain public recognition with successful shows both in Hong Kong and abroad, including the Venice Biennale in 2003, and even went for auctions at the Sotheby’s.
A decade after Tsang’s death (2007), street art in Hong Kong has already entered a new chapter. Far from the vibrancy and sophistication of London’s or New York’s, street art is nonetheless much widely accepted and welcomed by the public in Hong Kong nowadays. In recent years, the city has been frequented by international street artists, such as Invader from France, who has secretly put up his iconic pixelated 8-bit video game images all over the city. In December 2019, the popular show “Banksy: Genius or Vandal?” arrived in Hong Kong and created quite a stir on the social media. The free spirit, unique artistic expression, cool character, coupled with satirical imagery, political controversy, and social criticism of street art have been welcomed by the young generations, especially in the era of social media when everybody has something to say and share.
In Hong Kong, one of the most popular areas to see interesting street art is Central-Sheung Wan (中上環). Thanks to HKwalls, the non-profit organization who has been organizing annual street art festival since 2014, several neighbourhoods in Hong Kong have already become hotspots showcasing the talents of local and international artists. In their debut year of 2014, HKwalls paired artists with properties owners in Sheung Wan and successfully added 17 street murals in the neighborhood, then another 50+ works in Sheung Wan and Stanley Market in the following year. The event moved to Sham Shui Po in 2016, Wong Chuk Hang in 2017, then returned to Central and Western District in 2018 before moving on to Wanchai (2019) and Sai Kung (2021). HKwalls has successfully brought in great artistic talents from all over the world to Hong Kong, transformed the urban scenery of old neighborhoods, and raised public appreciation of street art to a whole new level.
For a city well known of its quick, dramatic and relentless urban changes, the impermanent and transient beauty of street art suit perfectly to echo the ephemeral spirit of Hong Kong. Here if you see an interesting street art, you better document it right away. Next time around, the mural may be gone forever.
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.
Whenever I flew with Cathay Pacific, I often selected Wong Kar Wai’s (王家衛) Chungking Express (重慶森林) from their entertainment system when I was about to take a nap. Indulging myself in the repeating music of Dennis Brown’s Things in Life and The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’, and Christopher Doyle’s dynamic shots of Tsim Sha Tsui and Central always relaxed my mind. Chungking Express is undoubtedly one of my most favorite Hong Kong films. Chungking Express is lighthearted, complex, ambiguous, and beautiful. There are two stories in the film. The first story follows policeman 233 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and a female drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin) at Chungking Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui. The second story follows policeman 633 (Tony Leung) and a female staff (Faye Wong) at Midnight Express, a snack bar in the entertainment district of Central. Released in 1994, three years before Hong Kong was returned to China, the film did capture a mixed bag of sentiments and mood of that era: sense of uncertainty, ambiguity, loneliness, loss, affection, impermanence, desire to change, hope for a brighter future, etc. Without pretentious shots of the city’s famous skyline, Chungking Express is a visually dazzling film that captures the daily life of Hong Kongers happened in wet market, snack bar, old tenement apartment, convenience store, and the Chungking Mansion, a huge mixed use complex in Kowloon where new immigrants and tourists gather and stay the night. Director Wong Kar Wai describes the film as his love letter to Hong Kong. 27 years have passed. Chungking Express remains as an icon of Hong Kong cinema, and an exquisite documentation of the ever-changing city in that particular moment in history.
Perhaps it is because both protagonists Tony Leung (梁朝偉) and Faye Wong (王菲) are two of my favorite Hong Kong stars back in the 1990’s, or The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’ is too overpowering, or the filming locations in Central are just a few blocks from where I spent my childhood, I always like the story of Midnight Express more. Every time watching the film would remind me the old Central before the disastrous urban renewal projects that have torn apart Graham Street Market and gentrification that have wiped out uncounted tenement apartments and small shop owners who can no longer afford the skyrocketed rent. 1994 also marked the first anniversary of the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯), a 800m escalator system from Downtown Central up to the Mid-Levels. Wong Kar Wai chose the escalator and an adjacent apartment unit (home of Christopher Doyle, the legendary cinematographer of many Wong’s films) as the major film set for Chungking Express. Wong’s selection prominently imprints the escalator in the cultural atlas of the city, and introduces such unique urban feature to the whole world. In fact, the success of Chungking Express has consolidated Wong Kar Kai’s name onto the stage of international cinema, paving the way for his triumphs in the later half of the 1990’s, including Happy Together and In the Mood for Love.
Today, the 800m escalators system remains the longest in the world, and a popular tourist attraction. In 2015, CNN website picked the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator as one of the coolest commutes in the world. The idea of building an urban escalator system began in early 1980’s, when the Hong Kong government considered various options to improve traffic and pedestrian circulation between Central, the business district of Hong Kong, and Mid Levels, the residential neighbourhood on the slope of Victoria Peak. Cable car and monorail were also considered, but an escalator system was eventually selected. After 2.5 years of construction, the system was opened to the public in 1993. Wong Kar Wai seized the opportunity and became the first director to shoot a movie there. The escalator soon became popular among residents and office workers in Central, and led to dramatic gentrification of the surroundings. Buildings along the escalator system were torn down for new apartments. Small shops were replaced by bars and upscale restaurants, forming a vibrant entertainment district that we now call Soho. For both good and bad, the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator has been a major catalyst that wipes out the old Central I have known as a child. Yet on the other hand, the convenience it brings us who live in the area has undeniably become an inseparable part of our daily routine.