A Walk Around Luen Wo Market

Hong Kong’s gloomy winter chill has set in, and with no indoor heating, the best thing to do on a cold day is to set off for a brisk walk. That’s what I did two weeks ago when I took the train up to Fanling, the last major suburb before the border with Shenzhen, where I wandered over to the market town of Luen Wo Hui.

Though it seems old in comparison to what surrounds it, Luen Wo was actually a modern development master-minded by a group of wealthy Fanling property owners in the 1940s. A market was built in 1951 to serve the surrounding farms and villages. Over the course of the 1950s, the surrounding area was developed with shophouses into a regional commercial centre meant to compete with the nearby market town of Shek Wu Hui, about 20 minutes away by foot.

(The story behind Luen Wo’s development is actually quite fascinating, with inter-family rivalries, accusations of price-gouging, rural politics and the influx of Chinese refugees after 1949, many of whom were farmers from around Guangzhou and who resumed their agricultural practices in Hong Kong. It’s all covered in sociologist Chan Kwok-shing’s essay on Luen Wo Hui.)

Luen Wo quickly became economic and political centre for the surrounding area. There were rice shops, dry goods stores, travel agents, barbershops and a cinema, as well as bars that served British troops stationed in nearby military bases. In the 1980s, Fanling was designated as a New Town — a focal point for new population growth — and intense development followed.

Strangely, though, the new development did little for Luen Wo, which has become a bit of a backwater. A new air-conditioned market opened in 2002, replacing the old Luen Wo Market. The cinema, which remained unchanged since the 1950s, closed last year. The streets are much less busy than those in nearby Shek Wu Hui, which has benefited from being closer to the rail line.

As I walked aimlessly around Luen Wo, I happened across the old market, which currently houses a temporary exhibition on the area’s history. Despite the mildewy cement walls, the market is quite pleasant inside, with high ceilings and good ventilation — a far cry from markets built from the 1970s to the 1990s, which are stuffy, cramped and unpleasant, or the latest generation of markets, which are hermetically-sealed and air-conditioned.

The exhibition was fun and informative, with old movie posters from the Fanling Theatre, replicas of 1950s-era businesses and plenty of archival photos and documents. There was even an old woman stationed inside who gave out free >but tsai gou steamed pudding.

One particular exhibit stood out to me: pages from a 1990s-era Planning Department report on Luen Wo’s land use and redevelopment potential. It noted that the area had developed organically over half a century, with buildings of varying heights, market stalls and informal building additions. Instead of seeing this as a good thing, however, it tut-tutted about “piecemeal development” giving the neighbourhood an “unpleasant appearance.”

It’s an attitude that runs against a half-century of Jane Jacobs-inspired urban theory, that neighbourhoods become successful through a diversity of building types, uses and people. It’s the kind of thinking that has led to the demise of many Hong Kong streets in the name of urban renewal.

It made me worry that Luen Wo was targeted for some kind of clearance project. It was a bit grubby, after all, and its major landmarks — the cinema and market building — are now obsolete. But a quick Google search assuaged my fears. In 2007, a private developer wanted to redevelop the old market and adjacent open space into a huge commercial/residential complex; Langham Place, which replaced the Mongkok bird market, was cited as a model.

Thankfully, after considering the impact on the surrounding area — it would be completely out of scale — and on Luen Wo’s heritage — even the government thinks the market should be preserved — the Town Planning Board decided to quash the proposal.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday January 18 2011at 03:01 am , filed under Architecture, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Interior Space, Public Space and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “A Walk Around Luen Wo Market”

  • My research dug up similar anecdotes after my partner and I stumbled across the market on an errand in Fanling some weeks ago. Turns out the North District district council has considered several different adaptive reuse scenarios, but couldn’t agree on a single plan of action. Architecturally it would make for a great exhibition space; at some point I’d like to petition the council to develop a temporary project there.

  • That sounds like a great idea. I think the market would work well as a venue for these kinds of temporary events — no need for a massive renovation. The parking lot behind it (which I gather was an outdoor part of the market before it closed) would make a good public square.