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.
In 2016, “dai pai dong” was added as a Hong Kong English term in the Oxford English Dictionary, referring as “a traditional licensed street stall, typically with a small seating area, selling cooked food at low prices; (now more generally) any food stall of this type.” The term “dai pai dong” 大牌檔 literally means “big license stall”, which attributes to their bigger license paper compared to other street vendors. In Chinese, “dai pai dong” can also be written as 大排檔, meaning a “row of line-up stalls”. Street hawkers have been around in Hong Kong for over a century. The number of street hawkers increased dramatically after WWII, when unemployed citizens were eager to make a living by setting up all sort of vendor stalls on the street, including food stalls. In response, the government put forward “dai pai dong” licenses as a measure to regulate and standardize the food stalls. During its heyday between 1950’s to 1970’s, some say there were more than 3000 dai pai dongs across the city. To control street hygiene, avoid traffic congestion and give priority to urban developments, the government stopped issuing dai pai dong licenses in 1956, and restricted license transfer to spouse only, eliminating the chance of passing the business down the generation. As the city’s economy boomed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, dining options exponentially increased. Along with the government’s constraints and fierce competition of dining options, undesirable hygiene, absence of air conditioning, and the relatively crowded seating have all led to the dwindling of dai pai dongs. In 2011, there were 28 dai pai dongs left in Hong Kong: Central (10 stalls), Wanchai (3 stalls), Sham Shui Po (14 stalls), and Outer Islands (1 stall). From one of the most popular causal dining options in the 1960’s to a disappearing urban heritage that appears as diorama in history museums nowadays, the rise and fall of dai pai dongs reflects the rapid evolution of Hong Kong in the latter half of the 20th century.
Often promoted as a unique component of Hong Kong’s culinary heritage, scenes of dai pai dongs are often displayed as backdrops in museums and amusement parks. A typical dai pai dong consists of a 4′ x 6′ green metal stall used as kitchen, and a long bench topped with three small wooden stools as extra seating. In the past, the number of customers was restricted to two folding tables and eight portable chairs. Opened for breakfast, lunch, dinner or late night meals, dai pai dong may serve congee, noodles, stir fry, dessert, and/or coffee/tea. Despite street stalls are disappearing fast, dai pai dong dishes and their cooking techniques have been well preserved at many neighbourhood restaurants in Hong Kong. Often described as good wok hei (鑊氣), which literally means excellent “breath of wok” or the rich aroma and flavour of the wok, the spirit of dai pai dong cuisine remains as one of the essential aspects of the local cuisine. While the taste of dai pai dong may live long, it is the vibrant street ambience, the causal interactions with vendors and fellow customers, and the carefree dining experience topped with cheap beer and loud laughter that would certainly be missed.
Man Yuen Noodles (民園麵家), a former 80-year old dai pai dong in Soho, Central, was the spark that ignited the city’s attention on dai pai dong conservation. In 2005, there were 30 dai pai dongs left in Hong Kong. Wong Kwong Hing (黃光慶), the license holder of Man Yuen Noodles, passed away. The Lee brothers, disciplines of Wong’s father and the operators of Man Yuen for many decades, attempted to continue the hawker license but were rejected by the government. A number of district councillors, legislators, and 3000+ Hong Kongers made a petition, urging the government to let the Lee brothers continue with the business. Their petition failed, and the famous street stall was forced to close down. Yet, the 2005 incident successfully captured the media’s attention and brought out the issue of the dying culture to the public. The conservation effort gained momentum in the next couple of years, and eventually led to the change of license regulations in 2008, allowing non spousal license transfer to be considered. Despite the effort, the numbers of dai pai dongs continue to drop. Without anyone’s notice, the end of dai pai dong could become reality in less than a generation’s time.
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.