Out and about
Over the past few weeks, yet another heritage-grade building, the Wan Chai Market on Queen's Road East, has passed into the pages of the picture books that mutely lament 'old Hong Kong'. A prominent public landmark for a third of the time urban Hong Kong has existed, it was one of the few links with former times that remained. Before domestic refrigeration, most households bought fresh-food items twice a day and the market was a popular focal point for the community.
One of only two Bauhaus-influenced market buildings in the world - the other is in Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Wan Chai Market was built in 1937. Designed to ventilate naturally, it was perfect for food-court-style dai pai dong - and perhaps more upscale bars and cafes. Properly thought out, it could have provided a landmark example for Hong Kong of an intelligently readapted building fully accessible by the public - unlike the fiasco-ridden Tsim Sha Tsui Marine Police Station.
There are excellent regional models that could have provided inspiration - that is, if the desperately mediocre minds tasked with preserving, enhancing and successfully reusing Hong Kong's heritage were capable of learning anything from outside successes - or their own mistakes. Whisper it softly, but Singapore very successfully adapted the Victorian-era Telok Ayer Market in, um, 1991, and Kuala Lumpur's marvellous art deco Central Market was also revitalised in the 1990s. Both enjoy lasting popularity.
Just around the corner, on Stone Nullah Lane, the so-called Blue House has recently been the subject of successful preservation efforts but its principal value - certainly from the standpoint of adaptive reuse - is minimal, especially when compared with that of Wan Chai Market. The Blue House is old, to be sure - but does that fact alone make it 'historic'? Form generally prevails over substance in Hong Kong - in heritage matters as everything else - so this distinction matters little.
So go out today and see the process of destruction for yourselves and if this sorry sight helps stir up a little more civic consciousness - a soul-destroying, energy-wasting exercise in Hong Kong, sadly, but still worth the attempt - then perhaps the market's demolition might have achieved something worthwhile. And lest I sound too negative - at the last minute the developers decided to keep the building's facade intact. So let's be grateful for some sense of public spirit. All together now - cheers!