If you take the B2 Exit at the Yau Ma Tei MTR Station in Hong Kong, you will soon find yourself in an ocean of tin-sheeted structures and accosted by a strange smell that is probably a mixture of the fragrance of fresh flowers and the odor of stale food.
Shabby, cramped and messy, the area will at first glance comes across as alien and be seen as a virtual shantytown amidst the neighboring modern high-rises and malls in southwestern Kowloon. But delve deeper, and you will realize that the streets had served quite an important role in people’s lives in the past.
Called Gwo Laan (果欄, fruit market) in Cantonese, the place is Hong Kong’s oldest existing wholesale market for fruits where one can buy imported fresh fruits at unbeatable prices.
Business at Gwo Laan normally starts at 2 am every day when numerous fruit vendors and restaurant operators in town try to replenish their stocks before they open their shops. While most of Hong Kong is still asleep, Gwo Laan is already buzzing with activity and vitality as fruit dealers and numerous resellers negotiate prices, and as tons of goods are dispatched from there to all districts of the territory. The place will then become quiet and still after 7 am, and remains so for most of the day.
Gwo Laan barely changed its layout in the past century. Many pre-war signboards still dot the streets and shops, and a main structure has been categorized as a grade 2 historic building by the Antiquities Advisory Board in 2009.
Business in the area goes back to early 1910s – well before the reclamation projects in Yau Ma Tei and Jordan – when imported fruit were ferried to nearby berths.
The 1970s and 1980s were Gwo Laan’s golden days when Hong Kong economy began to take flight and demand for fresh imported fruits soared. However, business has waned since the 1990s as chain supermarkets took away sales from the mom-and-pop stalls.
Right now, the place is more of a hotspot for tourists and photographers. The striking contrast of Gwo Laan’s old and even dilapidated appearance amid the surrounding sleek modern skyscrapers is a source of fascination for many visitors.
But what makes Gwo Laan a unique attraction is how traditional trades can still exist in a metropolis like Hong Kong.
Business there is based on honesty and mutual trust, like what it was a century ago. For instance, a reseller can preorder a certain batch of fruits and pay at a later time by putting a fruit box upside down and marking on it his name and the quantity that he wants. Dealers will not sell the preordered fruits to another reseller.
During the peak hours, dealers are unable to keep an eye on all the goods but theft rarely happens there. Sometimes Gwo Laan dealers also help their customers check the quality of fruits and arrange delivery service. And they will never palm off fresh fruits with rotten ones.
Bottom-tight abacus (密底算盤) is another old invention that is still in use today. Dealers there cover the back of their abacus with a wooden sheet so that their competitors cannot see the numbers on the abacus when they negotiate prices with prospective resellers.
But Gwo Laan has its dark side too.
The place was once notorious for being a hotbed for crimes and triad activities. The reason is simple: as most of the dealers and laborers there were poorly educated, drugs, gambling and prostitutes were usually among their few options for leisure and relaxation after work. Like many other old grassroots neighborhoods in Kowloon, triad organizations thrived in the 1970s and 1980s, with gang members collecting protection money from dealers in Gwo Laan.
Crimes related to organized drug smuggling were rampant there in the 1970s, and led to a conflict between the Hong Kong Police and the then newly established Independent Commission Against Corruption. The anti-graft body detained a number of senior police officers on grounds of bribery and collusion after some Gwo Laan crimes surfaced. The conflict prompted the then Governor Sir Murray MacLehose to issue a writ of special amnesty allowing all civil servants who accepted bribes before 1977 to go free.
For decades residents in the vicinity were also angry about the nuisance caused by fruit lorries and illegal road occupation.
Authorities have outlined plans to integrate the fruit bazaar into newly built government-owned wholesale food markets and preserve and redevelop the site into a heritage museum-cum-commercial precinct. Meanwhile, children of fruit dealers there are not interested in continuing their fathers’ trade.
Given these factors, it is only a matter of time before Gwo Laan and its old ways and traditions fade away. And a charming slice of Hong Kong’s history will be lost forever.
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