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

It’s an overcast day on Argyle Street and the sound of construction workers drilling through concrete radiates out from the cloaked mass of the former Mong Kok Market. When it opened in 1975, the market stood in gleaming contrast to the weatherworn walkups around it. But by the mid-2000s, it was nearly empty, eschewed by shoppers who preferred to buy groceries from the hawker stalls in the adjacent streets. It closed in 2010 and is now being converted into a health centre, after the Covid-era economic slowdown scuttled the government’s plans to sell it for commercial use. 

A few blocks away, Carmen Tsui is sipping tea and nibbling on an egg tart at Hung Wan Café, a cha chaan teng whose funky décor dates back to the same era as the old market. Tsui is an architect, urban historian and associate professor at Lingnan University whose book Everyday Architecture in Context explores the evolution of Hong Kong’s public markets from 1842 to 1981. “Architectural historians have a tendency to look at iconic buildings, but it’s important to look at everyday architecture,” she says. 

Mong Kok Market nearing completion in 1975

It’s hard to get more everyday than the market. Along with dozens of street markets, there are more than 200 indoor markets in Hong Kong, including 97 run by the government’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), 78 by The Link Reit (a real estate trust launched by the government in 2005), 22 by the Housing Authority and a handful more under the auspices of the Housing Society and other organisations. Few places in urban Hong Kong are more than 10 minutes by foot from a market. Known in English as wet markets, because of their fresh ingredients, or in Cantonese as gaai1 si5 (街市) — “street market,” regardless of whether they are on the street or in a building — they are a quintessential part of Hong Kong life.

The ubiquity of public markets is partly a reflection of local eating habits: Cantonese cuisine values freshness above all else, and there is no better place for day-fresh vegetables or live seafood than the local wet market. But that alone does not explain the abundance of markets in Hong Kong. For fresh products in particular, markets are almost invariably cheaper than supermarkets, a function of high volume and low overhead costs. (It’s worth noting that just two companies, Wellcome and ParknShop, control 70 percent of Hong Kong’s supermarket industry, a so-called duopoly that many critics says has led to inflated prices.) Even if they are populated by multiple vendors, a single wet market offers a diverse abundance of products in one small area, whereas most supermarkets in space-deprived Hong Kong tend to be just a fraction of the size of those in other countries. 

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Kowloon City’s wet market in the 1970s

And more than just places to buy everyday essentials, Hong Kong’s markets anchor the neighbourhoods around them. In a city known for the rigidity and unfriendliness of many of its public spaces, markets bring everyone together. “At first glance, street markets in Hong Kong can easily be regarded as nothing more than a place to buy food, cooked or uncooked,” writes Maurizio Marinelli, a professor at University College London who studies Hong Kong markets. “However, when carefully studied, they hold a number of significant socio-economic aspects that can contribute to the future development of Hong Kong, while preserving a centuries-old tradition of sociality and community living.”

This stands in contrast to many other economically developed cities around the world, whose former abundance of markets has withered in the face of competition from supermarkets, suburban sprawl and hostile policymakers who saw public markets as relics of the past. New York once had 10 public markets built in the early 20th century to house former street hawkers; only four remain. 

But the past few decades have seen a resurgence in support for historic public markets, pop-up farmer’s markets and more. (London has actually seen its number of markets, both on the street and in permanent structures, increase from 163 to 280 since 2010.) Kelly Verel, co-executive director of the Project for Public Spaces — an American non-profit that organises an annual conference on public markets — lists “public health, social cohesion, climate resilience and the ability to make a decent living” as some of the benefits offered by markets. US-based urban planning scholar Alfonso Morales describes them as “community development tools” whose value is finally being recognised. “Public markets were once essential parts of the cityscape and they are becoming so again,” he wrote in a 2009 paper for the Journal of Planning Education and Research. 

Unlike so many other cities, Hong Kong never lost its markets. And yet, paradoxically, they seem overlooked and undervalued. The number of markets has actually declined over the years as the FEHD closes underperforming facilities like the Mong Kok Market. Supermarkets continue to gain market share. In the 1990s, only a fraction of Hongkongers bought their groceries at supermarkets; today, the proportion is 62 percent, according to a 2022 report prepared for the Food Export Association, a non-profit group representing American farmers and food producers.

So what’s the future of Hong Kong’s markets? As is so often the case, the answer begins with the past. When British authorities first set foot on Hong Kong Island in 1839, two years before it was ceded to the United Kingdom and three years before it became an official crown colony, they were thronged by hawkers offering them what trade superintendent Charles Elliot recalls as “a large quantity of pigs, ducks and fowls.” Hawking remained a constant in Hong Kong as it developed into a city, but as Tsui notes in her book, it “created inconvenience for traffic and threatened social order” in the eyes of colonial officials. 

Two views of Central Market, one of four Edwardian-style markets, in 1895

Their response was to concentrate hawking inside public markets, which by government decree had a monopoly on the sale of fresh meat. The first was Central Market, which opened as a rudimentary collection of bamboo matsheds in 1842. By 1872, there were 12 markets across Hong Kong, from Shau Kei Wan in the east to Shek Tong Tsui in the west, with the Yau Ma Tei Market serving Kowloon. Many of these markets were demolished and rebuilt on several occasions, each time with sturdier and more imposing materials. Between 1895 and 1913, four markets were built or rebuilt as multi-storey structures in a grand Edwardian style: Central, Tsim Sha Tsui and Western, which was split into two separate blocks. 

(The north block of Western Market is the only one of these Edwardian markets that survives today, and the Tai O Market, built in 1919, is the oldest surviving example of what most of those early markets were like: a simple open-air canopy.) 

The Wan Chai Market was rebuilt in 1937 as a stylish Streamline Moderne structure that met the corner of Queen’s Road and Wan Chai Road with a curved façade marked by concrete fins that sheltered the entrance from rain and sun. The Central Market was rebuilt in a similar style in 1939. “Some of the first modern government buildings were markets,” notes Tsui. After the grim years of the Japanese occupation, from 1941 to 1945 — a time during which the Wan Chai Market was used to store corpses — the colonial government continued building markets, including the Bridges Street Market in Sheung Wan, which opened in 1953, and the Tang Lung Chau, which opened in 1963. There were also non-government groups that opened markets, including a group of Fanling villages that banded together to open the Luen Wo Market in 1951.

These were examples of what Modernist heritage advocacy group Docomomo describes as “classic example[s] of functionalist architecture,” with architectural elements such as breeze blocks and sun-shading louvres that were not meant as decoration but simply as devices to make the naturally-ventilated buildings more usable. Today, they are reminders of an era whose architecture is quickly disappearing from Hong Kong’s landscape, but they could also have been symbols of the last generation of Hong Kong markets. 

Luen Wo Market, opened by villagers in 1951 and later taken over by the government. It has sat empty since 2002

That’s because, in the 1960s, the government was questioning the need to keep building markets at all. As Tsui notes in her book, many of the older pre-war markets were in dire shape, and after the Yau Ma Tei Market collapsed in 1953, the Urban Council (a body that governed Hong Kong’s municipal affairs from 1883 to 1999) launched a reconstruction programme that ended up taking more time than expected due to a shortage of architectural staff in the Public Works Department, which was overwhelmed by the resettlement estates being built in the wake up of the Shek Kip Mei fire in 1953. The Tang Lung Chau Market was a replacement for the decrepit So Kon Po Market built in 1858. But it was also an experiment: a so-called “composite market” that combined fish, meat and poultry stalls with vegetable and dry goods stalls run by former street hawkers. With the flood of refugees pouring into Hong Kong from mainland China after World War II and the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the number of hawkers had exploded, and the government was looking for ways to clear them off the streets – the same motivation that had led to the creation of the very first public markets in the 1840s. 

But the market was a failure almost from the beginning. 200 stalls were spread across two floors that were initially meant to be connected by a lift until budget cuts meant the upper floor was only accessible by stairs. Butchers that had been assigned to the first floor complained that they had no business because nobody wanted to climb the stairs. And merchants of all sorts found the stalls too small to actually be usable. Only half a year after the market opened, nearly all of the former street hawkers who had been relocated there left for the surrounding streets. Rather than antagonise them even further, the Urban Council decided to legalise street hawking in the area around the market. 

The early failure of Tang Lung Chau hinted at persistent design problems that would undermine the success of Hong Kong’s markets. Stalls didn’t meet the needs of their occupants, the layout didn’t match customer preferences and budget concerns outweighed comfort and accessibility. (Notably, Tang Lung Chung’s first floor is once again vacant today.) But despite the setback, the Urban Council decided that it was worth continuing to build public markets. “They had a discussion and decided it was the government’s responsibility, because public markets keep the rents and food prices low, and it’s a mechanism that can be regulated by the government,” says Tsui. In the tumultuous 1960s, when Hong Kong was bursting at the seams and poverty was rampant, this was an important consideration.

The council also realised that markets represented a unique opportunity. “They started to think about how to make better use of the markets on public land,” says Tsui. When the Mong Kok Market opened in 1975, it included a playground for market workers. That foreshadowed the transformation of local markets into something much greater: civic centres for the entire neighbourhood.

Part II of this series will focus on the multi-use municipal complexes that emerged in the 1980s, while Part III will examine the continuing evolution and future of Hong Kong’s public markets.

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