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.
Midnight Express, a former snack bar in one of Hong Kong’s most vibrant and eccentric nightlife area Lan Kwai Fong (蘭桂坊), was one of the primary filming locations of Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (重慶森林). In the film, Faye (Faye Wong) works at the snack bar while policeman 633 (Tony Leung) regularly comes to order takeout for his girlfriend. Behind the snack bar counter, Faye often dreams about the American West Coast, dances in the deafening music of California Dreamin’, and watches the revelry of Lan Kwai Fong’s party crowds. Standing behind the street-facing snack counter, Faye might have seen the partying individuals as empty and lonely, drinking, dancing and spending money as if there is no tomorrow. Chungking Express is just one of many films and TV dramas that picks Lan Kwai Fong (LKF), Hong Kong designated hub for partying, drinking and clubbing, to tell their urban tales. These stories have contributed to the myth making of LKF’s wild parties and charismatic lifestyle of the city’s high earners, expatriates and socialites. Since opening the first disco in 1978, the cool partying retreat was soon developed into a popular entertainment hub, and then becoming the city’s prime tourist attraction, the evolution of LKF reflects Hong Kong’s fast changing subcultures and economic circumstances in the past four decades.
Yet, LKF is not always about the glitter and glamour. A hundred years ago, LKF was home to brothels, marriage arrangers, and hawkers, and continued to be a back alley in the shadow of Central until the late 1970’s. It all began in 1978, when Gordon Huthart, son of the director of Lane Crawford luxury department store, collaborated with Andrew Bull, the legendary DJ who came to the city in 1974, brought the culture of Saturday Night Fever to Hong Kong by opening Disco Disco in LKF. Before Disco Disco, most nightlife in the city were associated with five star hotels. Disco Disco was the avant-garde venue that opened up a new era of subculture that welcomed all cool people in the city, be it queer or straight, rich or poor, to present their stylish outfits, glamorous persona and real character on the dance floor. Disco Disco was the pioneer in Hong Kong to break the social norms, and soon became one of the most phenomenal disco in Asia. International celebrities like Andy Warhol, Madonna, Sex Pistol, Rod Steward, Sean Penn, Sylvestor Stallone, etc. who happened to be a visitor of Hong Kong, would come for a drink and rubbed shoulders with the local socialites and celebrities. Despite shutting its doors permanently in 1986, Disco Disco has undoubtedly established the mythical foundation of LKF.
In 1983, the former Club 97 and Allan Zeman’s California Restaurant opened in LKF, and soon developed LKF into a prime nightlife destination, and a special venue for wild parties and celebrations for the New Year, Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day. The sloped lane of LKF and the adjacent D’Aguilar Street (德己立街) were proved too small for the overwhelming crowds in 1993’s New Year’s Day, when a stampede accident killing 21 and injuring 62 shocked the whole city. Since then, stringent crowd control measures have been introduced by the police in LKF at every major festivals. Despite the tragic incident, nightlife continue to flourish in LKF and remain popular among expatriates, high earners, and tourists. Under the business vision of Allan Zeman, the biggest landlord in the area, LWF has become a unique business model that can be exported to other cities in China and Thailand. Today, a little more than a year since the first case of Covid 19 appeared in Hong Kong, LKF is facing its biggest challenge since 1978. Long periods of compulsory closure have shattered the entertainment businesses. From the coolest clubbing venue to a business formula that can be appropriated elsewhere in Asia, and from the designated party floor to one of the biggest business victims in times of the pandemic, LWF has seen its ups and downs. How may the partying ground adjust to the new order of post-pandemic Hong Kong is yet to be seen.