Urban Renewal Authority

Let's not lose another part of our heritage

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 February, 2007, 12:00am

Wet markets are among the oddest - and most captivating - sights of Hong Kong. Across this city of concrete blocks, stalls selling fresh vegetables, raw meat and live fish can be found along many back alleys and even main roads.

As an age-old tradition, wet markets have survived the emergence of supermarkets and the growing popularity of packaged food in this Asian world city. They are still the preferred shopping destinations of gourmets serious about cooking with the freshest produce. But as our stories on two wet markets in Central and Stanley show, we as a community have yet to find a satisfactory solution to the taxing problem of how they can be preserved as a valuable intangible heritage.

The stalls that line Peel, Graham and Gage streets in Central can be dated back to the early days of Hong Kong as a colonial outpost some 140 years ago. Over the years, they have survived piecemeal re-development of the blocks behind them. Now, it seems that their survival might be threatened by a comprehensive plan to rebuild the area.

The Urban Renewal Authority is bound by a pledge made by its predecessor, the Land Development Corporation, to redevelop the area's dilapidated dwellings. In their place will be gleaming office towers, residential buildings and a hotel. The authority has vowed to do its best to preserve the stalls, but it is not at all clear how that will be done.

Over in Stanley, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has made a well-intentioned effort to ensure some stalls at the newly built Waterfront Mart are preserved for vendors who ply their trade at a nearby wet market. But their plan to relocate the vendors to the new facility - and presumably to shut down the old one - has failed. The few vendors who have made the move find that they look out of place at the stylish mart, where most stalls are geared to foreign visitors looking for items of local interest.

Fresh thinking is desperately needed to crack what looks like an intractable problem. The starting point must be that wet markets are worth preserving. The stalls may have started as illegal adjuncts on pavements, but they are a living heritage still catering for real needs of the people. Any plans to redevelop the areas in which they can be found must include arrangements to accommodate their continual existence.

On their part, stall owners must be prepared to change with the times so that they would not necessarily look out of character after their backdrops have become gleaming skyscrapers. In other world-class metropolises, examples abound of colourful stalls selling fresh produce in business districts and tourist attractions, to the delight of locals and tourists alike. With thoughtful planning, it should be possible to preserve the wet markets in Central and Stanley - as well as other districts - by giving them a facelift, so they can continue to function proudly in their new settings.