Hong Kong's heart and soul lies in its markets. I'm not referring to those multi-storey ones that the government has put up in its quest for orderliness, cleanliness and control. This isn't about those trinket-filled ones teeming with tourists in Mong Kok or Stanley. The ones I'm referring to are those that everyday people shop at on the streets, the ones filling laneways, snaking down hills and spilling from footpaths across roads.
They're what we're all about. Lively and vibrant, they're a constant even amid uncertainty. The colours, smells, sights and sounds are to be found nowhere else in our city. They're a way of life, the past meeting the present, the produce of the world together in one place and all in the open air with chatter, a chance to pass the time of day and perhaps even go home with a bargain.
It's something the government doesn't understand. For decades, it's been doing its best to shut down wet markets on streets and move them indoors. Hawkers are being squeezed out; new licences haven't been issued since the 1980s and there are strict rules on their transfer and use. Never mind that history, tradition and a way of life are involved.
I would have thought that the Urban Renewal Authority had a better grasp. As a statutory body, it's got the ability to be more in touch with community needs. When chairman Barry Cheung Chun-yuen and a gaggle of his staff took me and a colleague for a tour of the vacant Central market building and the nearby Graham, Peel and Gage streets area last Thursday, I thought they were going to unveil a new approach to previously issued controversial plans. They only partially convinced me.
What's in store for the Central market sounds just right. Surrounded by tall buildings, the low-rise structure is literally an oasis - and that's what the authority is using as the basis for its redevelopment. The government handed it over to Cheung last year following an outcry over plans to sell it off for yet another skyscraping tower. What will emerge, if what was presented comes to fruition, will be a rooftop garden, spaces for arts and cultural displays, and shops and eateries that everyone can afford to patronise.
Then came the hard sell. Up the escalator to Graham Street, Hong Kong's oldest market: it's a bustling, teeming anomaly, where hawkers do business beneath blazing skies as they've done for the past 150 years, now just a stone's throw from the glitz and glamour of the two IFC buildings and The Landmark. As Cheung pointed out, despite being so close to Central, the buildings in the area are less than salubrious. A slum is how I'd put it. They're up to eight storeys high and are generally decrepit, with crumbling steps, broken floorboards and sagging roofs. The hawkers outside, many of them residents, don't have running water or electricity for their stalls.
Rightly, the authority has been called in. Generous terms are being offered so that 67 buildings can be acquired. Cheung said hawkers were part of the plans; efforts would be made to help them stay and even attract more. He said the low-rise nature of the area would remain, although some high-rises would be built to recoup costs. A community hall would be built and a park in an area associated with nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen beautified.
That sounds fine until the details are scrutinised. The authority wants to bulldoze the area, preserving only three pre-war buildings on Graham Street. On the rest of the site will rise four buildings of between 26 and 33 storeys atop a four-storey podium - two residential blocks, one of offices and a hotel. A corridor will cut its way to the escalator. The convenors of the Central and Western Concern Group, Katty Law Ngar-ling and John Batten, told me they are certain this will destroy, not retain, the district's character.
Urban renewal isn't always about pulling down; it's also about revitalisation. The residents and hawkers of the Graham Street area want to keep their market just as it is. That can be done with scale in mind, by gradually replacing buildings with similar-sized ones. Podiums and high-rent properties abound; they have no place in a district that is so significant to our past and present.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post