Some of Hong Kong’s older Districts are experiencing a gentrification process, where a handful of beautiful older buildings are being redeveloped and preserved, with others marked for demolition. The upside of gentrification is in the creation of new areas, providing fresh experiences for the visitor to Hong Kong. The downside is the destruction of some of Hong Kong’s older established traditions.
Hong Kong has a problem with decaying, ageing buildings in its older urban areas. Currently there are about 16,000 private buildings aged 30 or more years within the metro area of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, Tsuen Wan District and Kwai Tsing District. By 2030, it’s estimated the number of buildings over 30 years old will quadruple. To “address” the problem of urban decay, in July 2000 Hong Kong’s quasi-government authority – the Urban Renewal Authority – enacted an Ordinance allowing for urban renewal in various locations. Their objective: to accommodate large-scale commercial development; improve the living conditions of residents in areas designated as “dilapidated” and to enhance the area’s attractiveness to tourists.
Gentrification in Mid-Levels
Mid-Levels on Hong Kong Island is a residential area in the Central and Western District. Located halfway up the Peak offering spectacular views of Victoria Harbour, the roads around Mid-Levels are steep and often narrow.
On these constricted streets and hidden laneways, are an eclectic collection of ground floor restaurants, cafes, shops and bars. They are over shadowed by the tall towers housing vertical rows of apartments, each adorned with the customary precariously hanging air-conditioning unit.
The Mid-Levels area is easily accessible to anyone prepared to hike the steeper slopes.The busier main streets offer the visitor a vibrant street-life experience. But to walk the quieter back streets of Mid-Levels is to discover the heart and soul of old Hong Kong, rich in cultural heritage and tradition. Ladies note, walking these unevenly paved streets in stilettos is at your own risk.
For an authentic Hong Kong food experience of handcrafted dimsum, sit at one of the rickety wooden tables at Ding Dim 1962 Restaurant, 14D Elgin Street.
Smell the pungent burning incense as you stroll past the Man Mo Temple at 124 Hollywood Road. Built in 1847, the oldest temple in Hong Kong sits in stark contrast to the surrounding high rise buildings. The temple has retained its original character and is a quiet place to escape the street bustle to watch locals light an incense prayer stick. But like much of Hong Kong, this area around Mid Levels is experiencing its own peculiar gentrification process.
Redevelopment of the Police Married Quarters
A positive example of the successful re-design and renovation of an old, dilapidated building in the Mid Levels area is the Police Married Quarters – now known as the PMQ at 35 Aberdeen Street, Sheung Wan. Opened in 2014, this large three storied building complex is a creative hub for some of Hong Kong’s young designers. Entering via an open courtyard, allows exploration of the many floors of shops and studios showcasing a mix of recognisable retail brands as well as small exclusive Hong Kong brands. Find anything from fashion, stationery, to children’s clothing and kitchen accessories. PMQ offers higher quality merchandise in comparison to the stalls at the Ladies and Night Markets.
If shopping makes you hungry, PMQ has a selection of trendy food and drink outlets. The Aberdeen Street Social, 35 Aberdeen Street run by Michelin UK chef Jason Atherton and entrepreneur Yenn Wong, offers the choice of an upstairs restaurant with contemporary cuisine or a downstairs cocktail bar/casual dining area.
Sweet Social, a unique retail shop on the garden level of PMQ is the go to place for a delicious selection of home-made pastries, gelati, chocolates and beverages, to enjoy either in house or take away.
Handcraft Shop Owner Siqiu Yang 32 yo of the Soul Art Shop on Aberdeen Street, directly opposite the PMQ building indicates the re-development of the area has been a positive experience for her store as well as for those who live in the area. “There are more cultural events associated with the PMQ. There are exhibitions, performances and festivals which brings customers to our shop and offers more diversity to the Hong Kong People and to the Tourists,” says Siqiu.
But the re-development comes at a cost. “As a result of the redevelopment, the landlord is taking control and they sometimes raise the rent crazily. Selling handicrafts or running workshops are not that beneficial compared to the jewellery shops, watch shops, and pharmacies, which you find everywhere in Hong Kong. If the rent will increase, it may exceed what our business can afford. That is my worry for the next year,” says Siqiu.
Destruction means displacement
The Graham Street markets provide a traditional Hong Kong experience in the middle of Central. Also incorporating parts of Gage and Peel Streets, the Graham Street Markets founded in 1841, are Hong Kong’s oldest continuously-operating street market. Street vendors vie for your trade as you wander the narrow streets viewing the rows of stalls selling a mix of fresh seafood, meats, vegetables and other dry goods. Also known as the wet markets, stalls include fishmongers with fresh produce still splashing in buckets and butchers showcasing carcasses strung in rows outside their shop fronts.
The traditional tofu makers and Chinese medicine dispensers ensures these markets deliver some of the greatest diversity of produce found in Hong Kong. One discerning stall holder who guessed my accent tried to convince me to buy some ripe Australian mangoes.
For a first-time visitor the markets may appear a noisy, bustling and crowded place – but a walk through them offers a fascinating insight into authentic Hong Kong. But these markets will not survive, as Graham and Peel Street have been zoned for redevelopment in the Urban Renewal Authority’s gentrification plan.
Resistance to Change
With the Graham Street urban renewal redevelopment many traditions of the last century will disappear. Josephine Chan is a 45yo Hong Kong local who has lived in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels area since 2006. “When they close these markets, I will miss the fresh vegetables supplied daily from local farms in the New Territories. Of course I will miss the fresh meat, the live fish and seafood which is only available in the wet markets. I know so many people who come from all over Hong Kong for the produce they sell here,” say Josephine.
The market traders are slowly being evicted to eventually be replaced by high-rises, residential blocks, office towers and a hotel – essential in this city of 20.6 million people and growing. But as the modern buildings emerge from the demolition, the gentrification process disturbs thousands of low-income residents and small-business owners living and working in these older districts. Many from the elderly residents who’ve lived in the area for years will not survive as their livelihood is removed with the destruction of the area. Although there eventually will be markets on the ground floors of the new building, the displaced stall holders have nowhere to go while they wait for the building to finish.
Owners of 70-year-old fishball and noodle shop Sun King Kee (Gage Street, Central), Tong Kim-chi 68, and his wife, Ma Hau-kuen who also works in the business, have been forced to move due to the renewal process. The shop started as a traditional outdoor food stall, to serve Central’s working-class population decades before the high-end shops and bars moved into the area. The food stall moved indoors in 1967 and over the last few decades the shop has changed little. Tong and his wife have almost given up hope of finding a new location for his business. “If we can’t find one, I’ll become an employee somewhere and wait for an opportunity,” he said.
A retired man who used to enjoy a bowl of noodles at Sun King Kee with his wife, a couple of times a week for the past two decades seemed not as accepting of the change. “There is no heart in this government. There should be a department dealing with preserving history – not just the buildings – but the culture, the food and these old shops. Or else all of this will be gone. As [part of] old Hong Kong, I’m extremely disappointed in the government.”
Sadly their angst is not something visitors to the city share as they explore the repurposed sites – unaware of the turmoil many of its residents are experiencing.
What’s happening now?
The markets on Graham and Gage Streets are still in operation. Community activists have delayed the timeliness of its complete demise, although the section marked “B” on the map below has been demolished.
Re-building in this area has begun, evidenced by the dull thudding sound of pile drivers demolishing the old to make way for the new. Visitors keen to stop by these markets before this culturally unique area is erased forever must try to get there before 2017. This is the year the Urban Renewal Authority suggests the old area will close permanently.
Balancing the new with the old
Hong Kong’s version of gentrification incorporates the Chinese preference for anything new. Somehow they manage to balance it with a retention of the old adding a modern twist. Although preserving buildings may not necessarily safeguard Hong Kong’s history or culture, it allows for a type of renaissance, providing more options and opportunities for both the visitor and locals.