Government should get out of wet markets

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 March, 2009, 12:00am

Wet markets are an integral part of Hong Kong's cultural fabric. They are where many of us get our fresh food and produce and catch up on gossip. Few other places are as colourful, vibrant or friendly. Yet government complexes set up decades ago to make an often chaotic sector more orderly are more often than not forlorn and empty - and increasingly so.

The government auction of stalls at one such building in Tsuen Wan yesterday was telling. Such spaces should be in hot demand given how engrained wet markets have traditionally been in the lives of Hong Kong people. This was not the case, with only a small percentage of stalls on offer being taken up despite low rents.

Supermarkets have contributed to the decline. They have cleverly taken the wet market concept and used it to their advantage, providing a similar shopping experience in sections of their shops for fruit, vegetables, meat and fish in a considerably more comfortable environment. Prices can be higher, because bargaining is not permitted, but studies show that their market share is steadily growing. Air conditioning, labelling and cleanliness are clearly what shoppers favour.

Part of the problem is that the wet markets are run by the government - they are managed by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. This sort of commercial activity would be much better operated by the private sector. Yesterday's auction to rent out vacant stalls is a good example of where things are going wrong. Auctions are the government's preferred method of renting or selling property, but this is no way to operate a shopping centre. The right tenants have to be found and they have to sell an attractive mix of products. There has to be a pleasant shopping environment.

The government complexes are generally cramped and can be overly hot or cold, depending on the season. Smells can at times be overpowering. Poorly thought-out drainage means that the wet markets live up to their name. There is a sense they are unhygienic.

The government should not be in the business of managing wet markets. It realised this with shopping centres and wet markets in public housing estates and divested them to the private sector. That model may not suit the task at hand - co-operatives or a development corporation may be better alternatives. Regardless, the role of authorities should be plain: to provide the leadership to bring together hawkers and commercial expertise. Such a move will be politically difficult, given the history of wet markets. But it is the right way to proceed.

Getting shoppers into the wet market complexes will be challenging. The buildings have to be made comfortable to shop in. Products not available in supermarkets have to be a selling point. A friendly atmosphere has to be created. The to-do list is long, complex and perhaps expensive. What is certain, though, is that the government should step back and let the private sector take over.