February 16th, 2016

What Hong Kong Can Learn from Barcelona

Encants Market Barcelona

The Mercat dels Encants in Barcelona.
Photo courtesy Fermín Vázquez

The Mercat dels Encants rises like a mirage in the heart of Barcelona, the city shifting and shimmering across its enormous mirrored canopy. Completed in 2014, the structure is part of a vast redevelopment of the area around the Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes, but it isn’t a glitzy shopping mall: it’s a new home for a ragtag flea market that has thrived on Barcelona’s streets for more than a century. “You can feel its presence from a distance,” says the market’s architect, Fermín Vázquez.

Vázquez was in Hong Kong recently to discuss the importance of public space, something that Barcelona has long embraced, from the days when 19th urban planner Antonio Cerdá transformed the city with leafy avenues and spacious courtyards, to more recent efforts to reclaim road space for pedestrians and cyclists. “There’s a genuine interest in the city,” says Vázquez. “People in the government are aware that citizens judge their urban policies. They follow them with interest.”

The picture in Hong Kong isn’t as rosy. Whereas Barcelona invested 56.4 million euros in building a new home for the Mercat dels Encants, similar markets in Hong Kong languish under a government policy that supports their gradual eradication. Increasingly, though, local architects and designers are banding together with hawkers and community activists to help markets survive.

“It’s definitely a cleansing of the streets,” says designer Michael Leung, who recently obtained a licence to operate a hawker stall on Hamilton Street in Yau Ma Tei, which he has turned into a kind of consignment shop and community gathering space. Stall ownership is non-transferable, thanks to a late-1970s policy of slowly eliminating street hawking through attrition, but stall owners can sublet their spaces to licenced operators. “There are fewer and fewer hawkers,” says Leung. “What’s happening to Pang Jai, the fabric market, is a big example of that.”

Pang Jai is the colloquial name for the Yen Chow Street Hawker Bazaar, a 40-year-old assembly of fabric hawkers that has been slated for demolition by the government, which plans to build public housing on the site. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has offered to relocate hawkers to a variety of other markets around town, but many of the tenants are resisting the move. “They say it would be the death of their fabric market community, which is understandable,” says Leung. “It’s a one-stop shop.”


July 6th, 2015

Urban Rebirth in South Africa


Maboneng Precinct, Johannesburg

The skies threatened rain, but the streets in Braamfontein were buzzing. On De Beer Street, crowds spilled out of the ground-floor bar of the Bannister, a hotel with retro 60s signage. Across the street, the scene was even more intense at the Neighbourgoods Market, which every Saturday transforms a parking garage into the most fashionable spot in Johannesburg. Downstairs, a crowd danced to a raucous jazz band. Upstairs: cocktails, street food and clothes made by local designers.

This was not the South Africa I had been warned about by people fed on a steady drip of news stories about violence, corruption and urban decay. Johannesburg in particular has been the subject of countless sensational stories about crime and abandonment, but my visit to the city revealed something far more compelling: rebirth. For all its troubles, Johannesburg felt like a city on the up and up, a place with the hustle and energy of a great metropolis in the making. What wasn’t clear was how widely the fruits of its renaissance will be spread.

In Braamfontein, I wander into Dokter and Misses, a design studio run by Katy Taplin and Adriaan Hugo. The ground floor is a slick showroom for their colourful, eclectic furniture, most of which is made in a large workshop downstairs. “When we started here about five years ago, there was almost nothing,” said Taplin. “Then the market opened up and the critical mass started. Bars, students, cool kids, then the Nike and Puma pop-ups. It’s a spirit of creativity and expression that’s going on here.”


June 18th, 2013

The End of the Line

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf


The end of the line is only the beginning — something we wrote about in 2011. That was especially true at On Nut, the eastern terminus of the Bangkok BTS SkyTrain until a recent extension. Bangkok is a sprawling metropolis, but the trains only took you to the edge of the central city. After that, a bus, or a motorcycle taxi, or a tuk tuk ride or a long walk, as the case may be.

On Nut is located near the Phra Khanong Canal, a murky body of water that meanders past Buddhist temples and clusters of timber houses, but its character is defined by the never-ending stream of traffic along Sukhumvit Road. On one site of the station is a Tesco hypermarket, where you can buy cotton pyjamas, durian and cheap Thai rice liquor, and on the other is a night market, which sells more or less the same things but with far more ambiance.

Grab a curry at the night market — then it’s time to wait for the bus, to continue your journey past the end of the line into the endless Bangkok sprawl.



February 19th, 2012

Building a Better Street Market

Photo by Shichao Zhao

When a blaze in the Fa Yuen Street market killed nine people last November, it was Hong Kong’s street hawkers that took the fall. Even before arson investigators had discovered the source of the fire, the government’s Hawker Control Officers ordered market stalls to remove their awnings and reduce the size of their stock.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) put forward a series of proposals to reduce the fire risk posed by market stalls. Options include forcing hawkers to dismantle their stalls at night, installing sprinkler systems, moving stalls away from building entrances, relocating street markets away from residential areas and asking hawkers to voluntarily surrender their licences in order to reduce the size of street markets.

“It’s like they wanted to blame everything on us,” said Fong Kam-mei, who sells children’s clothing on Fa Yuen Street, at a protest against the crackdown two weeks ago. Many hawkers say the government’s proposals would drive them out of business.

Now a group of designers, artists, academics and activists have banded together to improve their situation. “We call it SDU — the Street Design Union,” says artist Kacey Wong, an assistant professor at Polytechnic University’s School of Design.

Their goal is to help design a better street market “to improve the hawkers’ business, improve the street market environment and maintain the social and cultural value of markets,” says Chan Ka-hing, chairman of the Hong Kong Design Community.

The problem: “Before we can take any action, the government needs to have a clear hawker policy,” says Chan. “If the government doesn’t change the way it does things, no matter what designers try, it won’t be functional.”


January 30th, 2012

Rebuilding the Market Economy

It used to be routine: wake up, walk to the wet market and buy the day’s fresh ingredients for dinner. Markets have always been a part of Hong Kong life, but these days, they are losing ground to supermarkets, whose numbers have grown exponentially over the past two decades.

Chain supermarkets Wellcome and Park’n’Shop now control more than 70 percent of the grocery sector, while the number of independent grocery stores and wet market stalls has declined by more than half since 1996. Tofu merchant Cheung Ching-loi says business at his stall in Tai Yuen Market declined by 60 percent over the past decade.

Other market vendors tell a similar story: fewer customers, quieter markets. In the government’s 102 public markets, one out of every seven stalls is vacant. The vacancy rate is similar in markets run by the Housing Authority and The Link Reit, a publicly-traded corporation that bought 96 markets from the government in 2005.

The situation became so bad at some markets they were simply shut down. Before it closed last year, the government-run Mong Kok Market was more than 60 percent empty. Vendors placed the blame not only on changing consumption habits, but on the market environment: wet, dirty, cluttered and poorly-ventilated.

That was certainly the case at Tai Yuen, which is located near the heart of the Tai Wo shopping district in the suburban town of Tai Po. Thirty years after its construction in 1980, half its stalls stood empty. Customers were so sparse that merchants took the afternoon as an opportunity to nap. There was no natural light, little ventilation and no air conditioning. The roof leaked when it rained.


January 18th, 2011

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.


December 17th, 2010

Cabbage Season in Beijing

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Beijing, 1994:

Mountains of Chinese cabbage — 396 million pounds by the reckoning of the Beijing authorities — began advancing on the capital this month, as one of old Beijing’s agricultural rhythms persists against the onslaught of modern supermarkets and glitzy shopping centers that have sprouted here.

Rough-hewn peasants who have been sleeping with their crops for weeks in a 100-mile arc of farmland outside Beijing have converged for the annual ritual of selling what was once a survival crop for many Chinese.

They come in trucks, horse-drawn carts and pedal-powered three-wheelers, all straining under billowing loads of cabbage that within the space of a week fill acres of sidewalks and alleyway space.”


October 15th, 2010

Montreal to Paris: Fog, Strikes, and Salmon

Posted in Canada, Europe, Food, Politics, Transportation by Daniel Corbeil

Montreal, suite 747

Le voyage commence à l’embarquement dans ce bus déjà trop plein – suite 747 – qui nous débarquera à l’aéroport P.E.T.

Et si ce même voyage commencait déjà, par ce chemin, au travers du centre des affaires montréalais – vaste esplanade commerciale – et qui nous dépose au pied de Marie-Reine du Monde. Notre cathédrale. Celle qui nous fait déjà rêver de Roma, de San Pietro au crépuscule. La vie, la bousculade. Le mouvement. Un espresso sur fond de paysage enflammé.

Aussi on embarque dans ce bus – franchement trop plein – et on défile au travers de Montréal, en glissant la pente vers les faubourgs du Sud-Ouest. On croise rapidement le marché Atwater, qui nous transporte jusqu’à la Méditérannée, et puis on suit la longue et paresseuse coulée du canal de Lachine. Des murs aux briques rouges, avec en arrière-plan, le Mont-Royal : arqué et coloré, en cette saison où l’automne ronge rapidement les arbres, les préparant pour ces trois longs mois d’hivers. On a un peu froid : cette carte postale nous donne le vertige, avec un certain de degré de romantisme. L’appel à l’infinie.

Ce voyage promet d’être décisif.


August 11th, 2010

Haiphong Road’s Halal Meat Market

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

The wet market on Haiphong Road comes as a bit of a surprise, tucked as it is beneath a busy flyover that shudders with the weight of passing trucks. The crowds streaming along the road towards the shops on Canton Road pass it by without much thought. If a passerby were to wander in, though, he or she would be in for another surprise. Instead of the usual row of fishmongers and butchers selling every cut of pork cut imaginable, there is a small collection of halal butchers.

I’ve been to the market on a number of occasions, and each time, the butchers seem vaguely surprised to see me. They ask me where I am from. “Canada,” I reply, to which they usually tell me about a relative in Toronto or offer some platitude about the beautiful scenery. On my last visit, I asked one of the butchers, Asif, how long he had been working there. “More than twenty years,” he said. Born in Pakistan, he came to Hong Kong as a child and started working in the market when his father opened a shop there in the 1980s. “We don’t come from a family of butchers, so we had to watch others and learn from them,” he said.

I had always assumed that the market’s customers were mainly Pakistani from the surrounding neighbourhood, but it draws a more diverse crowd than that. “Indians will come and buy goat — they don’t eat beef — and cook it for breakfast,” Asif told me. “Chinese people come here too. They say our meat tastes better.” He gestured towards cuts of beef hanging from hooks above his stall. “In our country, beef is tough and goat is softer, but here, beef is very tender and goat is tough.” I asked why, but he shrugged.


May 27th, 2010

Oranges, Fish and Fat Cats at Jean-Talon Market

Posted in Canada, Fiction, Public Space by Daniel Corbeil

DCorbei | Le marché du Nord, Montréal (2009)

Dès le petit matin, on traine et on blasphème : Marché Jean-Talon, le sourire éveillé par un soleil ardent. C’est déjà l’été : les fruits sont brûlants, alors que le minuscule café des Quatres Vents s’éveille d’une complaisance matinale.

Le vélo sous le bras, je défile sous les arcades. Le saumon parfume les allées rectilignes de ses exhalaisons chantoyantes. Les oranges déversent, d’un flot sans interruption, une effluve de la passionnante Méditerranée. Sicile de février: souvenir d’orangers et d’amandiers en fleurs.

Quatre coups du lourd mécanisme de ma bécane : allée des déchets, d’où les relents d’urine me perturbent, souvenir d’une nuit peuplée de quelques matous de ruelles récemment engraissés de nos immondices encore comestibles.


March 27th, 2010

À l’heure des marchés

Posted in Canada, History, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Kate McDonnell points the way to a promotional magazine published in 1964 to attract tourists to Montreal. It’s partly a snapshot of Montreal in the mid-60s, but also in large part an example of how the city was being branded and its image constructed in the years leading up to Expo 67.

The text is bilingual, but the English articles are often a perfunctory approximation of the French versions. There’s feature stories on the Museum of Fine Arts (“a bustling community centre for Montreal’s two cultures”), the booming business district (“the driving force of all Canada”) and the artificial islands being created for Expo (“the raising from the waters of new land in Man’s world”). Everything is written in a smart but unwaveringly optimistic language that comes across today as quaint and naive.

In 1964, Montreal was still on the cusp of modernity, its metro system under construction, its iconic skyscrapers still being dusted off. While a number of articles trade in the “France in North America” cliché that has served Montreal’s tourism industry since the birth of modern tourism, there’s more focus on the brute commercial and industrial marvels of a city that was still in its economic prime. In today’s tourist literature, the romantic French clichés remain, but any talk about train building and highway construction has been replaced by fuzzier praise for the city’s creativity and innovation in music or design.


February 26th, 2010

Frutti, merci e pesci! Markets in Catania

Posted in Europe, Society and Culture by Daniel Corbeil

DCORBEIL | Rose sur Azur

DCORBEIL | Bloody morning


February 13th, 2010

Fighting Over Flowers

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

I’ve never seen anyone get so angry over flowers.

It’s tradition to buy flowers in advance of the Chinese New Year, a festival that celebrates renewal as one lunar year gives way to another. Last year, when I was living in the Mongkok Flower Market, I watched as traffic became more and more snarled as the days led towards the new year. By the time the last week year came around, I was being woken up on weekend mornings by endless honking and angry shouts. Leaving my building meant fighting for sidewalk space with housewives willing to slaughter and maim for the last peach blossom or peony.

When I returned to the Flower Market last week to take some photos, it didn’t surprise me that the first thing I saw was a shouting match. A crowd had formed at the corner of Sai Yee Street as several people stood screaming at a few uniformed men and women.

After a few minutes, the screamers gave up and walked off in a huff. I followed them to a flower stall in a nearby laneway and asked what they were so angry about. I was answered by Kelly Cheung, a petite young woman with plastic-framed glasses and vaguely elfin features whose family has run the stall for more than 30 years.


November 26th, 2009

Cheung Fun Fix

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food by Christopher DeWolf

Cheung fan or cheung fun or cheong fun