Grassroots Green, a Colour to Define Hong Kong

Why is Hong Kong so green?

The question came up several years ago over afternoon tea with Laine Tam, a graphic designer and Zolima CityMag contributor. “If you had to pick a colour to associate with Hong Kong, what would it be?” she asked, looking out the window at Temple Street hawkers setting up for the night.

“Red?” offered her interlocutor. 

“That’s what most people would say,” replied Tam. “But I think it’s green. Not just because of the hills or the trees, but because so many things in the city are painted green, like the street market stalls.”

It was an interesting observation, and it came up a few weeks later during an interview with Simon Go, a photographer and the co-founder of local heritage group Hulu Culture – an interview that, coincidentally, also took place at Mido Café. He immediately perked up.

“I call this colour ‘grassroots green,’” he said, gazing up at Mido’s 1950s-era metal window frames which were, of course, painted green. It’s a colour that embodies the so-called Lion Rock spirit, the kind of bootstrap industriousness that propelled Hong Kong out of poverty in the postwar years, when millions of migrants came here from mainland China seeking a better life. “The windows, the market stalls, the trams, the Star Ferry. It’s everywhere, in all of the most famous Hong Kong things.”

But why? Go didn’t know for sure. He speculated that the government required market stalls to be painted green as a measure of consistency. The owner of a paint shop on Wellington Street, in the middle of Hong Kong’s oldest street market, provided a similar answer. “The hawkers come here to buy their paint and they choose from a few different shades of green,” said the shop owner. “I think it has to do with government policy.”

But a spokeswoman for the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), which regulates Hong Kong’s markets, said the government didn’t regulate the colour that hawkers used. “In constructing a hawker stall at the allocated pitch, the licensee is required to comply with the permitted dimensions on size and height for the stall,” she said. “There is no colour requirement for the hawker stalls, but they are traditionally painted in green.”

So much for that theory. But others offered more ideas. “Green is popular because it hides dirt really well,” said Lam King-wing, the owner of a dai pai dong on Gutzlaff Street that specialises in beef innards. Incidentally, his dai pai dong had been recently rebuilt as part of a project that renovated the historic cluster of dai pai dongs in the heart of Central, improving drainage and providing the stalls with underground gas hookups. When the renovations were finished, the traditional green wood and metal walls of Lam’s stall had been replaced by unpainted stainless steel.

That brought up another reason why green has always been so popular. “Market booths use a lot of mild steel sections, and mild steel tends to rust, unlike stainless steel, so it needs protection,” says architect Daniel Pätzold. “In the past, there weren’t so many colours available, and some had particular chemical qualities that made them good to use. Green might have been one of those.”

In 2009, Pätzold and his partners, academic Syren Johnstone and artist Kingsley Ng, removed a decades-old market booth from Gutzlaff Street and replaced it with a new replica. They named the original booth, which they nicknamed Hung Bak (孔伯 hung2 baak3)—“Uncle Hung,” a reference to the hawker whose name was emblazoned on the stall—for performances and art installations. 

It was exhibited at the 2011 edition of Art HK, the predecessor of Art Basel Hong Kong, where Pätzold looked at its weatherworn surface and pointed out several layers of paint: yellow primer, a vivid green and a darker, more recent shade of green. “The original green was very bold because it used a lot of chemicals that aren’t used in paint anymore,” he said. 

Which raises an important point: not all greens are the same. Even in a single street market, different booths are painted different shades, from the lighter Apple Green to the darker Larch Green, which is most popular. A creamier shade of green has traditionally been used to paint concrete and interior walls.

That kind of dark green is used on the trams and Star Ferry, at least those that are not wrapped in advertising. Chinese University cultural studies professor Oscar Ho suggests it might be related to the early 20th century popularity of British Racing Green, the colour used to represent Britain in car racing tournaments. (The racing colour was originally a lighter shade of green chosen by racing driver Selwyn Edge to honour Ireland, which was then a British colony that was hosting a race because motor racing was forbidden on UK roads. Over the years, the shade of green used by racecars gradually became darker.)

“It is pretty much an upper middle class British colour – who else could afford to join international car racing?” says Ho. “If you like to interpret it that way, then the deep green is very much a British colonial byproduct.”

None of this was particularly conclusive. But Simon Go had continued digging into the history of green in Hong Kong, and at another meeting over coffee in Shek Kip Mei, he arrived bearing an iPad loaded with historical photos. 

When Hong Kong boomed after World War II, he explained, few paint colours were available, partly because of lingering wartime shortages. Just about everything was painted with the same three commonly-available colours: vanilla white, candy red and bright green. You can still see this colour scheme in many old shop signs and even the white, red and green neon signs used by pawnshops. Green was popular because it didn’t easily appear dirty, and other readily-available colours had cultural associations that made them unpalatable for everyday use. Blue is associated with funerals, for instance, and red with celebrations. 

“Green was the most common until the 1960s,” Go said. “It was everywhere. I remember when I was a kid in the 60s, everyone had the same green colour at home. The walls were painted green, the floor tiles were green and white. I asked my parents why and they said, ‘Everyone else has it, so why not us?’”

Go suggested, with a touch of romance, that green’s popularity stemmed in part from nostalgia for the mainland Chinese farms that many people left when they came to Hong Kong. “My grandmother used to say, ‘When I dream of the motherland, I always dream of green,’” she said. “That’s when I first found out she lived on a farm.”

Green’s popularity began to fade in the 1970s, when Hong Kong became increasingly wealthy and more sophisticated paint colours emerged on the market. But it persevered in the street markets for decades. When a portion of the Fa Yuen Street market burned down in 2010, hawkers rebuilt their stalls and dutifully painted them green. “It’s been green for as long as I can remember,” said one hawker. “I don’t know why. It’s like how the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. That’s just the way it is.”

But nothing lasts forever. The Fa Yuen Street fire prompted a team of design researchers, led by architect Manfred Yuen, to develop new fireproof hawker stalls. They began by surveying 235 stalls around Hong Kong and found that, although just two types of stalls existed on paper—one for fresh food and another for dry goods—hawkers had modified them to suit their needs, resulting in 11 different typologies adapted for selling everything from fruit to fabric.  

Yuen and his team designed a prototype named Hawker Reload that featured a retractable metal canopy, folding shelves and a moveable cart that cuts the amount of time hawkers need to set their stalls in the morning and pack them up at the end of the day. Unveiled in 2013, the prototype was quickly adopted by hawkers when the FEHD began offering subsidies of between HK$20,000 to $54,000 for them to rebuild their stalls.

Street markets all across Hong Kong were revamped and refreshed. And a strange thing happened: the stalls changed colour. Although some hawkers opted for more traditional shades of green, others opted for a brighter lime green, or even heretofore unthinkable hues like turquoise, pink, purple and electric blue. It was a colour revolution that few people seemed to notice. 

“Most of the hawkers I talked to felt like the green colour was not so happy,” says Go. When the government subsidised their new stalls and offered a variety of colours to choose from, they took them up on the offer. “They wanted to make the street more vibrant.”

Go has mixed feelings about the change. “The city’s landscape is changing. You see so many old buildings vanishing, old culture vanishing. It’s the same with the green colour. It’s a vanishing icon. For people like me, it’s a memory of the good old days and how the grassroots culture is the basis of Hong Kong. But it’s Hong Kong – it always changes really fast.”

Tam is similarly sanguine. “It’s an evolution,” she says. “The colour and the stalls used to symbolise certain things like the Lion Rock spirit, working your way up from the bottom, how we’re all in the same boat. Now there’s not as much of an association with that spirit. In a way the multicolour paint reflects that. It’s a good thing, though. It’s diversity.”

This story was updated and expanded from a text originally published in 2011.

All photos by Christopher DeWolf except those of the Napier racecar (via Wikimedia) and the photo of the Star Ferry in the slider (by William Furniss).


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