Urban Fold

For Hong Kong, Street Markets Are In The Past

While neighborhood farmer's markets are all the rage in the U.S., redevelopment officials in Hong Kong are making plans to raze of the city's oldest open-air food markets -- which is falling victim to gentrification.

"It is hard to match the Rue de Buci in central Paris when it comes to open-air markets. Union Square in New York is a contender, and there is always Covent Garden, albeit in a reincarnation that is not at Covent Garden anymore.

But if you think of the sheer magic of the marketplace - of the hustle, bustle and satisfaction at the heart of a deal for, say, dried mushrooms, mandarin oranges or a nice, handsome fish head - you simply cannot leave Graham Street in central Hong Kong out of the equation."

"It will not be the way it is for long, however. The Graham Street neighborhood is now slated for redevelopment, and many in the community think the authenticity and the life of the place - that ineffable spark of humanity that arises when shoppers and street hawkers transact - will be lost.

Pessimists think the market is a goner altogether. Four tall towers and stacks of retail shops - the usual Hong Kong treatment - are to replace a neighborhood of funky (not to say crumbly) low-rise buildings with which street vendors enjoy a certain symbiosis (not to say illegally tapped electricity and water).

"We don't think the government is going about this the right way," said Law, who volunteers with one of several advocacy groups active on the issue. "We're still hoping to find a way to save this place.""

" "It's vibrant. I love it. I shop there every day," said Michael Ma, the authority's director of planning and design. "This project is about arresting what is already quite a lot of erosion. Leave it as it is and the organic growth of the city will kill the market entirely."

Graham Street itself is the very essence of the kind of urban commercial culture that Ma says the authority wants to preserve. It began as a Chinese market in the late 1850s and was known among the colonials as the Upper Bazaar because it was a steep climb skyward from the harbor front.

Old photographs suggest it was a crowded, cacophonous thicket of getters, spenders and vendors. But by the 1980s Hong Kong had committed itself to a certain idea of being modern: open markets were grungy, local and yesterday; glass and concrete were clean, Western and tomorrow.

The phenomenon is scarcely unique to Hong Kong. Singapore started razing one of the classic Chinatowns in Southeast Asia back in the 1980s and stopped only when the protests became too shrill to ignore."

Full Story: At risk in Hong Kong: A slice of hawkers' magic

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