The disappearing Graham Street wet market

February 05, 2018 14:49
A vendor on Graham Street, one of the oldest street markets in Hong Kong. Traditional shopkeepers could see themselves forced out from the area due to a government-led redevelopment plan. Photo: Katherine Li

The wet market along Graham Street offered a plethora of vivid scenes in the afternoon light. Next to walls of wooden boards wrapped in white cloth, colorful fruits and vegetables of all shapes and sizes, and all sorts of dried goods such as black fungus were being sold at roadside booths, while butchers were busy slicing pieces off large slabs of meat for customers.

The strong odor of parsley and seafood filled the air with a certain kind of strange liveliness. The loud chatter of vendors, the jingle of coins and the "chop, chop, chop" of knives were mingled with drilling noises from a nearby construction site.

Smack in the middle of this scene is a little shop with countless boxes of eggs neatly piled against the peeling concrete walls, their smooth surfaces glistening underneath the blue fluorescent lights. Toiling among the piled boxes was a man in his forties with dusty hands and sweaty forehead.

Mr. Wong is the owner of Wo Chang, a small grocery store known for selling tea leaves, plastic tablecloth, and all types of eggs mainly from the US and Hubei. He inherited the shop from his father, after working there since he was five. This shop has belonged to his family for fifty years and it has always been in the market.

"This is my storage room now. We use to have a more convenient storage place over there," Wong gestured towards Gage Street, "but we had to move due to the construction."

For him, reconstruction at the wet market and the building of a new apartment complex titled "My Central" has been detrimental. Ever since construction started in that area, his business decreased by 20 percent while the rent skyrocketed.

"Most of my old customers are gone since the place they lived in is being reconstructed, while the dust and the noise tend to keep new customers away," he said with a worried expression. "There used to be many customers around till 7 pm, but now by 6 pm the streets are empty."

He reflected that the current rent is HK$36,000 per month for his 600-square-feet space, which doesn't leave him and his family much for expenses. "It's difficult to make a living these days," he said as he shook his head. "Business here was so easy during the nineties."

Looking a little melancholic, he said he is expecting the rent to continue to rise because of lack of space in that area. That will drive him out of business once the two-year contract is up.

Wong said he complained to the Urban Renewal Authority about how the construction became a huge obstacle to his business, but nothing came of it. "

"There is really nothing I can do about this situation now," he sighed helplessly. "I will probably go work for someone else after the shop closes, since wages are high."

Wong's situation is not a singular case. The Graham Street bazaar is one of the oldest wet markets in Hong Kong, and vendors have been selling fresh food like vegetables and seafood for more than 140 years, attracting locals and tourists. But because of the construction between Gage Street and Graham Street, many shopkeepers say they are not optimistic about their future at the market.

They are not counting on the government to preserve their shops. That is because it only signed very short-term contracts (one or two years) with them, a move seen as aimed at helping authorities to have the shops removed swiftly when needed. Some butchers at Man Kee Pork even said that they are expecting a supermarket to open later near or right next to the new apartment complex, which will take away most of their business.

Unfortunately, their worries are not unfounded. Over the past twenty years, the government had spent a fortune gradually buying originally privatized shops so that redevelopment can go smoothly. Even the licensed green booths along the roadside that are reserved for elderly or disadvantaged people to help them earn a living, their licenses are not inheritable or transferable, meaning that the future of these shops remains uncertain once the present owners are gone.

A property agent in charge of promoting the newly built "My Central" units said a mall will open underground at the living area, and a hotel will open near to it. He stated that according to the developers, "they (the stores along Gage Street) will all be gone after 2019, because the random shops cannot be permitted to exist right next to high-class apartment buildings."

The whole wet market will gradually fade over the next 10 to 20 years because the government could buy back the green booth licenses or simply wait it out and then remove them altogether. It would cost the government approximately HK$30,000 to 50,000 to buy back each license.

However, not everyone agrees that the wet market should make way for modern developments. Some tourists who visited the area believe that even though the wet market is becoming less compatible with the modern lifestyle, it would be harmful to the local culture if the old and longstanding shops close down for reconstruction.

"I work for Apple and I'm here on a business trip from California," said one foreign tourist who was enjoying a cold beer with his companions while watching the butchers slice meat on a recent day. "The culture here is very interesting. There are no wet markets where I live, only occasional farmers' fair, which is nothing nearly as lively as this.”

His companions also commented that they did not come to see the modern malls and skyscrapers, and would definitely not have climbed all the way up the sloped streets of Central if not for this particular wet market.

While the future may seem grim for the shop owners in Graham Market, most of them say they will not give up and that they will insist on maintaining the historical and cultural value of their shops.

"I may have sounded pessimistic," said Wong with a box of eggs in his hands, finally smiling a little as he makes his way to his stall, "but know that I will take whatever opportunities I have to keep this business going for as long as possible, to respect my legacy.”

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International journalism student at Hong Kong Baptist University