Renovating Hong Kong’s Flower Market

There are many easy things in life, but selling flowers, apparently, isn’t one of them. For more than 30 years, Cheung Yuk-hing and his family have run a flower stall in a laneway near Mong Kok’s Flower Market Road, selling peonies, orange trees and other plants they grow in a New Territories orchard. The hours are long, profit margins low and the family faces a constant battle with hawker control officers who regularly fine them for putting their plants on the sidewalk.

“We were the first to put our plants out in the streets, before there were so many other flower shops. Now everyone does it,” said Cheung, who was fined several thousand dollars during the run-up to the Lunar New Year.

Business in the Flower Market has been tough for years as competition between vendors has increased and rents have soared. Now its merchants have something else to worry about: an Urban Renewal Authority plan to renovate Flower Market Road and a row of prewar apartment buildings on Prince Edward Road West. Some merchants worry that, once the renovations are complete, rents will increase even more and the market’s small businesses will be pushed out.

“It won’t help us,” said Wing Chiu, whose family has done business on Flower Market Road for 10 years. “The people who come buy flowers are locals, but this plan is just for the tourists. Business is already lower than before and this won’t do anything to bring in new customers.”

The Urban Renewal Authority’s plan for Flower Market Road is part of a package of renovation projects targeting Mong Kok’s “theme streets,” which also include Tung Choi Street’s goldfish vendors and Fa Yuen Street’s sneaker shops. The renovations on Prince Edward Road are part of another project that will restore a block of shophouses built in the 1930s; after the renovations, the URA has said it will allow flower shops to return, but at rents that reflect the block’s new market value.

Yau Tsim Mong district councillor Henry Chan Man-yu questions why the URA needs to involve itself in the Flower Market at all. “I wonder if it is the right decision for the URA to buy out those buildings and renovate the street,” he said. Flower Market Road and nearby Sai Yee Street were already refurbished in 2004, he said, when the district council installed decorative planters, lampposts and brick sidewalks.

Lau Chi-pang, a professor of history at Lingnan University and a member of the Antiquities and Monuments’ Office advisory board, says that the shophouses are worth preserving, but given the URA’s track record, its plans will likely lead to gentrification. “It will have a negative impact on the Flower Market, that’s for sure. The URA is capable of doing a good job with preservation, but the problem is that it has to strike a balance between preservation and perpetuating itself through commercial opportunities.”

Flower merchants have clustered around Flower Market Road for more than a century; in the days before 1898, when Hong Kong’s territory extended only as far north as Boundary Street, farmers from the countryside would bring flowers to the market to sell to city-dwellers. In the early years of the 20th century, the market’s proximity to the new Kowloon-Canton Railway made it even more popular. A growing appetite for Western-style decorative flowers led to a shift from wholesale to retail business in the 1990s, and the market began to attract tourists and expand beyond Flower Market Road into the adjacent streets. In the past two decades, the number of flower businesses in the market has expanded from less than 30 to more than 100.

In recent years, the increasing number of businesses has led to increased scrutiny from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, whose hawker control offices have begun to crack down on businesses that sell flowers in the streets. “Ten years ago, hawkers sold flowers off of pushcarts. Not anymore,” says Sunny Lai Wing-chun, who owns several flower shops and is the chairman of the Hong Kong Wholesale Florist Association. The URA project, he said, “has to be an improvement over the current situation if it’s going to be worth the effort. They can’t box us in by not letting us put our plants outside. If they don’t let us expand organically, the Flower Market cannot survive.”

Last year, in response to questions about the crackdown on outdoor flower hawking in the market, the Secretary for Food and Health, York Chow Yat-ngok, said that flower shops are permitted to display goods within three feet of their shopfronts, but anything beyond that would be subject to fines. URA spokesman Jimmy Sha said that it will attempt to accommodate existing market practices as far as possible. “Our revitalisation efforts are just to uphold and enhance the local character of Flower Market Road with appropriate improvement works, making it more appealing to visitors,” he said.

Lai said that he often travels around the world to learn more about street markets in other countries. “I’ve recently travelled to India and Russia to see what people there are doing with markets,” he said. “What I found is that there can’t be too many restrictions on how they do business. If you constrain a market too much in the name of beautification, it will wither and die.”

This story appeared in the South China Morning Post on Sunday, April 25.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday April 27 2010at 12:04 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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