Reviving Hong Kong’s Street Markets

Hong Kong Central street market art project

For Chow Yuk-yee, Hong Kong’s bustling Central street market is not just a place to make a living, it’s her home. Born just a few blocks away, she has spent her entire life here, first in her family’s fruit shop and now in the flower stall she owns with her husband, Cheung Wai-man, at the corner of Gutzlaff and Gage streets.

“The mood here is different from a supermarket,” Chow says. “You can talk to the hawkers, you can haggle over prices, and since it’s outdoors you can get some fresh air.”

All that might soon come to an end. The government is pushing to have the street market demolished for a hotel, office, and shopping complex. Under the redevelopment plan, Gutzlaff Street would disappear entirely, and the market would be relocated to a new building on Gage Street.

“If we lose this market, it will become history, and people will eventually forget about it,” laments Chow.

But there could still be hope. Last year, three architects, Kingsley Ng, Syren Johnstone and Daniel Patzold, approached Chow and Cheung with an idea: to design and build a replacement for their decrepit wooden booth that will maintain the history of the market while allowing it to prosper. This new booth is a counterpoint to the architects’ installation at the Hong Kong and Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale, in which they took the old booth and placed it in an empty field.

Hong Kong Central street market art project

Chow Yuk-yee, left, and Cheung Wai-man, right

The idea is that street markets thrive through constant regeneration, says Patzold. Shops are renovated, old booths are replaced and new businesses open. But for all the change, there is an overall continuity in the way that business is done. The atmosphere and economy of the Central street market is a culmination of its 140-year history, and the architects believe it should continue to flourish.

“A lot of young people would be interested in having a little shop to sell whatever right in the middle of Central. The market could regenerate itself on a grassroots level and stay vital to the needs of the city,” says Patzold.

Johnstone would like to see a fund to help hawkers improve their booths, and vacant booths could be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

This kind of aid came as a pleasant surprise to Chow. “I was very suspicious at first,” she says. “What kind of people would make us a new booth at no charge?”

But this kind of step-by-step development could gradually prove the merit of the market to those in power. The booth next to Chow and Cheung’s flower stall has sat empty for two years because the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department no longer issues new hawker licences.

True to traditional Hong Kong market booth style, the architects have designed Chow’s new booth to be nothing if not functional. It has a roll-up shutter at the front and openings near the roof to allow the flowers to breathe at night. The side wall swings open to expand the booth’s interior space. But when night falls, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary booth.

At 8pm every evening, the name of Chow and Cheung’s business, Pui Kee, written atop the booth, is superseded by a glowing red replica of the booth’s old sign, which reads Hung Kee Din Hei. Ng, Patzold and Johnstone have also replicated the graffiti that was found on the old booth with reflective paint that can only be seen with a camera’s flash.

“Quite often something has a history that people don’t see,” says Patzold. “We’re taking that layer of history and making it apparent.”

Hong Kong Central street market art project

Hong Kong Central street market art project

Syren Johnstone, left, and Daniel Patzold, right

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday February 07 2010at 07:02 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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