Merchants in a shopping centre owned by the Housing Department failed yesterday to gain an extension of hefty rent discounts that they have enjoyed since 2000. The department told tenants of the Chung Fu shopping centre in Tin Shui Wai that the discounts could not be continued because the economy and shopper numbers in the area had improved. 'The department cannot continue to use public funds to subsidise businesses in the free market,' a department spokeswoman said after a closed-door meeting. The discounts were granted when the centre opened in 2000 because housing estates in the area were not fully occupied. They should have ended in 2003, but were extended until January 16 this year because of the Sars outbreak. About 20 business owners met Deputy Director of Housing Albert Lee Kwok-wing, yesterday, to try to persuade him to give them special exemption from the full rent. Some merchants said the discounts added up to as much as 40 per cent off the regular rent. Dried seafood shop owner Ma Wai-piu said the monthly rent for a 300sq ft space had increased from $26,000 to $36,000. 'I cannot pay the rent this month because I have to pay my employees first, and products are becoming more expensive,' he said. 'The shoppers in the area mostly look for cheaper goods like eggs and rice. But I cannot make much money on those.' Meanwhile, some stall owners from the Heng Fa Chuen wet market protested outside the MTR Corporation headquarters in Kowloon Bay yesterday against the company's decision to contract out management of its only wet market property. After operating the market for about 17 years, the company had decided to hire a contractor to manage it, a spokeswoman said. Shop owners would have to move out by the end of June so that the contractor, Ming Food Markets Management, could renovate the market, she said. Store owners would have to negotiate new leases with Ming Food if they wanted to continue operating their businesses there. The owner of an electronics shop in the market for 15 years said she had been told by the company that it wanted to double the rents. She said that would push her monthly rent for the 100sq ft premises to more than $20,000, and potentially force her out of business.