The Death and Life of Hong Kong’s Public Markets, Part II

Kowloon City Market. Photo by Rayson Ho via Wikimedia

Early on a weekend evening, as daylight fades into hazy dusk, the Kowloon Municipal Services Building is as busy as ever. On the ground floor, hawkers in the wet market are closing up shop and hosing down the floors as the last customers of the day race to get their beef from the market’s renowned butcher. (Among the loyal clientele is film star Chow Yun-fat, who has been spotted at this particular market on many occasions.) Upstairs, kids trickle out of the library, books in hand. A group of friends with badminton rackets poking out of their bags walk through an atrium between the sports centre and the cooked food centre, where some of the city’s best Thai and Chiu Chow food awaits. 

It’s an all-in-one urban experience, an “urban living room,” which is what Ying Zhou, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Architecture, calls these Municipal Services Buildings. 43 of these civic conglomerations can be found across the city, including 33 that contain public markets. “It’s a unique architectural type,” says Zhou. “You only have this in Hong Kong because in other places they have more space.”

Inside the Aberdeen Municipal Services Building’s cooked food centre. Photo by Wing1990HK via Wikimedia

The complexes contain a varied and often surprising array of facilities. In Sheung Wan, where the local Municipal Services Building towers over Queen’s Road, you can buy groceries at the wet market, eat at the cooked food centre, exercise at the sports centre, practice calligraphy in the art studios and watch a performance at the 482-seat theatre. In Tai Kok Tsui, you can go rock climbing and swimming before buying your day’s groceries at the market. And if you can’t be bothered to cook, there’s always the cooked food centre, where the noodle soups are always hot, the seafood is always fresh and the Blue Girl beer flows freely.

Hong Kong’s indoor public markets date back to the very beginning of the British colonial era, but the Municipal Services Buildings have their roots in a very peculiar time in local history. In the 1960s, the Urban Council — a quasi-elected body that managed Hong Kong’s urban affairs — was already experimenting with building playgrounds atop new market buildings. In the wake of the 1967 riots, the administration of reformist governor Murray MacLehose was keen to invest more in Hong Kong’s civic infrastructure: new libraries, new cultural venues, new sports and leisure facilities, new markets for a growing population in need of affordable food. And in a crowded city like Hong Kong, why not combine all of these into a single convenient megastructure?

The Kowloon City Municipal Services Building, designed by Palmer and Turner and completed in 1985. Photo by Exploringlife via Wikimedia

The Urban Council was given the mandate to commission and build these new facilities. Known originally as Urban Council Complexes, the first one began construction in Aberdeen in 1978 and opened five years later. Designed by local firm Dennis Lau and Ng Chun Man Architects and Engineers (DLN), it looked as though one of Hong Kong’s hulking high-rise industrial buildings had swallowed a curtain-glass office block. The following year, another Urban Council Complex opened in Kowloon City with a design by venerable firm Palmer and Turner that looks like a particularly 1980s vision of the future, evoking the inside-out functionalism of Norman Foster’s Lloyds of London or the Pompidou Centre designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. “It’s so well designed, at least aesthetically,” says Zhou.

These early complexes were a lesson in how architectural constraints can produce fascinating results. “The early ones are the cooler ones because the architects were experimenting,” says Zhou. They needed to think about how to cram many disparate uses into the same structure, all while ensuring they were accessible, easy to navigate and at least somewhat comfortable for their uses. With limited air conditioning, particularly in the wet markets and cooked food centres, many of the early complexes were built to be as well ventilated as possible, through mechanical fans, louvred windows and high-ceilinged open-air spaces. And there are a number of architectural flourishes, like Kowloon City’s porthole windows, evocative of Jardine House, another Palmer and Turner project, or the glass lifts and mirrored ceilings in Kennedy Town’s Smithfield Complex, which Zhou describes as “bizarre and PoMo to the max – it’s like Florida.”

Many of the complexes have been recognised for their architecture: the one in Aberdeen earned DLN a gold medal at the Hong Kong Institute of Architects Awards in 1984. But their role in the community goes well beyond architecture. Each Municipal Services Building — a moniker adopted after the Urban Council was disbanded in 2000 — has its own ecosystem of services and businesses that both reflect and influence the neighbourhood around them. It’s what former University of Hong Kong student Mathilda Liao Zuhui describes as “the spirit of place” in her architectural conservation dissertation, published in 2021. 

Liao’s study focuses on one specific Municipal Services Building in Shek Tong Tsui. Completed in 1991, it includes a sports centre, library and cooked food centre, as well as a new home for the Shek Tong Tsui Market, which has been operating in one form or another since 1858. Interestingly, the complex was built atop Chun Sing Street, a now-defunct lane home to a bustling row of restaurants that led to a staircase that connected Queen’s Road with Hill Road. Rather than acting as a barrier, the complex contains an internal staircase that replicates the old Chun Sing Street connection.

Though the overall design of the complex embraces its surroundings, the market itself suffers from many of the defects that plague many other markets of its generation. In her study, Liao encountered customers who complained about poor lighting, cramped stalls and poor hygiene. “It looks cold and cheerless,” said one hawker. But the sense of community outweighed the flaws. “People here are very nice, they are very willing to give hands to me when I need help,” said one market stall owner. A nearby resident remarked that the cooked food centre attracted many regular customers, and eating there was always a social occasion. Another nearby resident described the entire Municipal Services Building as “essential and irreplaceable.” 

That sentiment is hardly unique to Shek Tong Tsui. Though some Municipal Services Buildings are more successful than others, they generally serve to anchor their surrounding communities – and can sometimes attract people from far and wide. That’s the case in Tai Po, where the Tai Po Complex — spearheaded by the New Territories’ Urban Council equivalent, the Regional Council, and opened in 2004 — is packed with visitors every weekend. Domestic helpers picnic on the rooftop terrace while a constant stream of nearby residents make use of the sports facilities. The wet market is bright, colourful and orderly, and it is renowned for the quality of its stalls. In the spring of 2019, food writer Bernice Chan toured the market with top chef Daniel Cheung when they ran into wet market connoisseur Chow Yun-fat, who had been eating in the cooked food centre. 

Despite their popularity, some of the earliest generation of Municipal Services Buildings are threatened. The Aberdeen complex was recently renovated, with changes — like a new set of escalators that occupy an atrium — that Zhou says undermine the original architecture. “It would be horrifying to any architect to see what happened to it,” she says. Kowloon City’s complex faces an even more dire fate: it is slated to be demolished and redeveloped as part of an Urban Renewal Authority plan to revamp the surrounding blocks. “The irony is that the first one to go is the best one,” says Zhou. “I just hope they don’t demolish all of them.”

The last Municipal Services Building opened in Stanley in 2006. It does not include a wet market. Less than three decades after their introduction, this distinct Hong Kong typology seems to be a thing of the past. Zhou still doesn’t have a precise answer as to why — she is currently conducting research into the history and architecture of the complexes — but she speculates that it has do with the dissolution of the Urban Council and Regional Council. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) is now responsible for markets while the Leisure and Cultural Services (LCSD) Department handles sports, community and cultural facilities; it seems likely the government is not keen to build any new structures whose management would be split between two distinct departments. 

Zhou says this reflects a “growing erosion of municipalness” in Hong Kong. The concept of the Municipal Services Building represented a kind of holistic view of civic life — all your community needs in one building — that was particularly well suited to a very dense city like Hong Kong. Today, the LCSD is still building new libraries and sports centres; the FEHD is once again building new markets after a long hiatus. But what does Hong Kong lose when, instead of its unique concentration of amenities, it separates them like in any other city?

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