Built in mid 1960s at the southwest end of Hong Kong Island, Wah Fu Estate is one of the first public housing projects in Hong Kong based on the modern housing concept which introduces elevators in high-rise apartments and standard facilities such as toilet, kitchen and balcony in each individually owned unit. In recent years, housing officials have been busy coming up with renewal proposals aiming at increasing the capacity of Wah Fu as part of the solution in tackling the ongoing shortage of affordable housing in Hong Kong.
Situated at the southwest corner of Hong Kong Island, Wah Fu Estate enjoys a dramatic seaside setting, with Lamma Island clearly in sight across the water to the south. Along the shore lies a strip of park called Waterfall Bay Park. Throughout the years, the park has become a prominent communal feature for Wa Fu and the adjacent Wa Gui Estate. In addition to the facilities built by the government, there are two interesting examples of ad hoc space making within the park.
About 30 years ago, a number of Wah Fu residents began to abandon and leave their traditional deity porcelain figures on a slope in the park; some of which belonged to their deceased family members. Those porcelain figures were mostly used for either decoration or for worshiping at home. As the numbers of porcelain figures began to accumulate in the park, someone had a brilliant idea of using cement to fix them onto the ground, preventing them from toppling during typhoons. Years after years, an outdoor garden of hundreds of deity porcelain figures was created and has been used by the community as a place of worship. The porcelain figures are all facing the sea. A small pavilion was later added next to the garden. Today this original “dumpsite” has become an interesting deity garden used by the community as a place of worship and local attraction for tourists.
By the waterfront immediately adjacent to the deity garden stands a small shelter and a sign that says “Fu Gui” Swimming Club, another ad hoc organization established at an unofficial spot by the local residents from Wah Fu and Wah Gui Estate. Further into the sea, out on a coastal rock is a small outdoor shrine for worshiping Tin Hau, Goddess of the Sea. Accessible only via a series of stepping-stones, this once unofficial Tin Hau shrine has earned its official status from the government after bargaining and will stay permanently, according to the local residents. Together with the deity garden, the Tin Hau shrine is a sacred place and is believed to protect the swimmers and the community. Worshiping at the shrine before swimming in the sea has become a ritual for the swimmers from the “Fu Gui” Swimming Club.
In contrast to the planned redevelopment of Graham Street in Central, residents living further away from the commercial core of the city seem to enjoy bigger flexibility in shaping their own neighborhood.
Apartment blocks of Wah Fu Estate.
Years after years, the abandoned porcelain deity figures have become a local garden and a place of worship in the community. With collaborative effort and creativity, the people created an unique identity to their own community.
On the day I visited the Deity Garden, I met the members from the Fu Gui Swimming Club who were preparing for the annual celebration and offering for the birthday of Tin Hau, Goddess of the Sea, at the small shrine built on a rock. They happily shared with me stories behind the Tin Hau shine and the founding of the swimming club. The shrine was built to protect the swimmers and community. The experienced swimmers acknowledge that the water between Wah Fu and the Lamma Island is a busy shipping corridor and they would not venture farther than they should.
Every year the swimmers celebrate the birthday of Tin Hau with rituals followed by an outdoor feast. Roast baby pork was first offered to Tin Hau at the shrine, and then shared among participants. Beer, pop and red wine were drank to wash down the roast park, chicken and other food that were offered to Tin Hau.
On the sloped Graham Street between Queen’s Road Central and Hollywood Road, there is a narrow street market hidden at the back of Central, the old downtown of Hong Kong. The Graham Street Market has been around since 1841 and is the oldest street market in Hong Kong. Personally, this is also the first street market I have ever set foot on when I was a child living in the neighborhood. Today, I re-visited the market with vivid memories of the past. With my camera, I wanted to capture the present moment of the market as it will soon be demolished to make way for new development.
As downtown Hong Kong expands east and west from Central, and the waterfront being pushed continuously out into the harbour, the hidden Graham Street Market could well be off the radar for most people if the Mid-Level Escalator and SOHO entertainment district had never been built. In fact, the covered Mid-Level Escalator that links the affluent Mid-Level to Old Central has been very successful as an efficient pedestrian infrastructure linking different neighbourhoods. It is influential for transforming the urban fabric of the Old Central area in the past two decades to becoming one of the most architecturally eventful areas in the city.
As part of the revitalizing project in Old Central, the Graham Street Market has come into spotlight in recent years. In 2007, The Urban Renewal Authority (URA) announced the three phases of redevelopment in Peel Street and Graham Street that would pretty much put an end to the street market’s century-old story. Because of rising land value and the emergence of SOHO, many parts of the old residential neighborhoods in Central have been transformed into entertainment retails or high-end condominiums. To many, the traditional Graham Street Market remains as the last symbolic stronghold of an authentic, original Central neighborhood. The loss of the Graham Street Market will certainly be bad news for the market merchants. While some are promised with new stores once the project is completed, the majority of the merchants will need to seek relocation. Even with offers for staying do come up, the foreseeable high rents will not allow most of the merchants to continue their traditional businesses that have been around for decades. On the other hand, to some local residents of the 37 buildings affected by the project, whose deteriorating apartments are in almost crumbling conditions, redeveloping the area is inevitable and perhaps not so bad after all.
According to the new master plan published by the URA, the new Graham Street will be made up of “more public open spaces” with a section of street retails, one hotel and two condominium developments. Jane Jacobs, an influential urban critic of the 20th century, may have something to say about such static urban design strategy, especially when a diverse neighborhood that has gone through over a century of evolution, is suddenly wiped out. The more chaotic, diverse, dynamic and to a certain extent, human and warmhearted Central may live long in the collective memory for many locals, but will soon only exist as nostalgic cinema sets for the generations to come.
Construction hoardings have been put up in some area on Graham Street. Many vendors continue their businesses selling different dry goods and fresh food like meats and vegetable across from the construction site.
Unlike supermarket, grocery shopping at open street market is a completely different experience. It gives a sense of community and provides opportunities for human interaction. Instead of reading labels on packaging or scanning barcode for information, Shoppers have to interact and start a conversation with the vendors to inquire about the source of the food or to bargain for a better price. Shoppers also have to put trust on the vendors for picking them to best and freshest of all. It is the kind of casual human interaction that is slowly disappearing in today’s urban society when people all found themselves too busy to talk to each other.
Many shops, stalls, and buildings have been vacant out awaiting for demolition.
Street vendors closing down their stalls at sunset.