Hip traders rail against death of wet market

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 August, 2007, 12:00am

Small businesses drawn to area near historic site

The government claims the area around Central's 140-year-old wet market is in need of renewal, but it seems it may already be happening.

Small businesses - from art galleries to restaurants, cafes and fashion stores - are choosing to set up on the edges of the area marked for redevelopment, bounded by Cochrane, Gage and Wellington streets, because of its unique character.

The Urban Renewal Authority has announced a HK$3.8 billion plan for the area that includes two towering residential blocks, a 33-storey office tower and a hotel.

Seventy-eight shops would be affected by the project, which would see a strip of three-storey replica pre-second-world-war tenement houses built and the partial preservation of the wet market.

While the proposal has proved controversial, the decision to redevelop the area was actually made in January 1998 by the then Land Development Corporation and supported by the overwhelming majority of property owners.

When the corporation was dissolved in 2001, the Urban Renewal Authority took over the project.

It argues that in the past nine years many residents, supported by the Central and Western District Council and political groups, have consistently demanded that the project proceed.

However, in that time, the new generation of small businesses that has moved to the edge of the area specifically for the existing 'feel' fear that the redevelopment will be overcommercialised, sanitised and dull.

Vincent Ku Wing-chung owns AM.PM cafe in Graham Street. Mr Ku moved into the area two years ago for the small-town atmosphere, the history and the camaraderie.

'Once the government gets involved, everything becomes so commercial, so the same,' he said. 'Do we really need another universal shopping mall, another coffee chain shop, or a burger store called California? This area is changing, but it should be allowed to change by itself.

'This is the wet market in Central Hong Kong. It has been used for so long by so many people that it is part of the city. We should be doing all we can to preserve it.'

Dominic Chan, who opened the Art Beatus gallery at the top of the market five months ago, moved from a gallery at a site near the IFC to be closer to the rest of the art stores in SoHo. He said the gallery's location attracted a more suitable clientele. 'We thought about moving but this area is more suited to what we are about. It is definitely growing - there are more cafes and restaurants - but it is still laid back.'

Leslie Kwok and business partner Kenneth Lo set up their cutting-edge Fill in the Blanks design gallery two years ago.

'This area is special, that is why we set up here,' Ms Kwok said. 'We see our stuff as young, funky and interesting. I think many other businesses are coming here because they like the atmosphere.

'Tourists love this area for the cheap food and street life ... If they redevelop it, they will go elsewhere.'

Paul Zimmerman, convenor of Designing Hong Kong Harbour District, said the Urban Renewal Authority was ignoring businesses attracted to the area because of the wet market and its unique character.

'They only talk to the property owners and the hawkers who have had compensation cheques waved in front of them,' he said.

Central and Western Concern Group spokeswoman Katty Law Ngar-ning agreed that new businesses came into the area because of its character.

'If you look at what the market was like 100 years ago, it hasn't changed much,' she said. 'But the changes that have happened have occurred organically. There has always been a synergy between the shops and the hawkers. What the government is proposing is directly opposite to the way the area has developed. It's frightening.'

Information on activists is available at Savethestreetmarket.com.

For details of the Urban Renewal Authority's plans visit Ura.org.hk.