Nowadays, there is a common development model in Hong Kong: erecting a series of residential towers atop a multi-storey shopping mall, and a transport interchange underneath for buses, minibuses, and the MTR metro. Everything from supermarkets, retail chains, food and beverage franchises, healthcare services, beauty and personal care, entertainment venues, community services, etc. would all be housed within the mall. Without much site specific character and community connections, a typical mall environment with the same group of shops that can be found everywhere in the city, essentially replaces the high street in a neighbourhood. Knocking down low rise buildings, erasing small alleys, and replacing with huge malls and high rise residential estates is luring business for developers, and is happening in many neighbourhoods across the city. So far, the majority of Sai Ying Pun has been spared from this large scale redevelopment force. Its century old urban fabric remains largely intact despite rapid gentrification in recent years. Within its grid street system, quite a number of shops have been serving the community for more than a generation. According to a university study, about 50% of Sai Ying Pun’s 35,960 population actually works in the same district. Residents have a high chance to interact with their neighbours while visiting the 700+ shops on street level. The recent arrival of foreign expats, along with new lifestyle shops, fine dining restaurants, pubs and cafes seem to harmoniously coexist with the traditional businesses of the community, reshaping the soul of a century-old neighbourhood in an interesting way.
Living in close proximity since 2019, we have become regular visitors to Sai Ying Pun. Every week we would walk over to drop off our household recyclables there, pick up grocery from our favourite tofu shop, vegetable stall, local sauce store and fishmonger, get restaurant takeouts, enjoy a traditional dim-sum breakfast or a Chinese dessert, and occasionally get haircut at an one-man salon. Sai Ying Pun has essentially become a part of our lives. Seeing the recent changes of Sai Ying Pun and the aging shopkeepers make us wonder how many of its unique old shops would remain in a decade’s time. Before all is lost, we felt it would be nice to document the urban scenery of this traditional neighbourhood as of today. With the humanistic scale and close knitted relationship within the community, this is essentially the soul of Sai Ying Pun that no shopping mall can ever replace.
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.