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Zoe Siu, programme curator of the mobile exhibition “Come’n Chill at Wanchai”, which celebrates Wan Chai’s street markets, with trinkets gathered from the stalls. Photo: Come’n Chill at Wanchai

Street markets in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district celebrated in mobile exhibition that folds up just like actual stalls

  • The ‘Come’n Chill at Wanchai’ project includes art, trinkets and videos that reflect the deep sense of community that surrounds Wan Chai’s hawker stalls
  • The exhibition includes 18 sketches of the stalls by Charlotte Lui, of the popular Instagram account @moving_drawing, drawn on white plastic shopping bags

The hustle of bustle of Wan Chai’s street markets doesn’t make them an obvious place to chill. But a Hong Kong designer and her friends want to show that traditional hawker stalls are nice places to hang out around, or to hea, Cantonese slang for lazing about.

Zoe Siu, the 37-year-old owner of local accessories label Zo-ee, came up with the idea of a roving exhibition with art, interview records and videos that give people a chance to appreciate these stalls – not just as places of commerce, but for the deep sense of community that surrounds them.

The project, called “Come’n Chill at Wanchai”, was inspired by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s theory of “the third place”, Siu says.

Whereas “first places” are our homes and “second places” are our workplaces, “third places” are public areas such as parks, cafes and sports centres where people can gather and enjoy each other’s company. According to Oldenburg, these informal spaces are fundamental to a community’s vitality.

People visit hawker stalls in Wan Chai. Photo: Come’n Chill at Wanchai
One side of the foldable exhibition at Lee Tung Avenue in Wan Chai. Photo: Come’n Chill at Wanchai

The market stalls south of Wan Chai’s Johnston Road are a kind of “third place”, Siu says. She spent three months interviewing 36 store owners to discover that they and their regular customers form a tight-knit network.

Many have been in business for decades and fear that their way of life will soon be erased if more buildings are earmarked for demolition in the area, she says, which made them wary of her approaches at first.
Siu (left) with some of the Wan Chai hawker stall owners that she interviewed. Photo: Come’n Chill at Wanchai
Siu (left) conducts a guided tour of the exhibition to visitors. Photo: Come’n Chill at Wanchai

“For them, it’s not just the business,” she explains. Pointing to a lime green knit sweater displayed for the exhibition, she says: “The shopkeeper who gave me that even teaches simple knitting techniques to visitors for free.”

After she convinced stalwarts in the area about her project, she managed to talk to them about their memorable experiences and their daily routine of dismantling and reassembling their stalls.

The results are shared through a mobile exhibition unit that can be folded up and packed away like the market stalls. It has already been shown in a number of locations around Wan Chai, but will be making a last stop on the ground floor of 7 Mallory Street from August 5-12.

Part of the exhibition, which displays videos and photographs of people from the Wan Chai street market community. Photo: Come’n Chill at Wanchai

On one side, it displays an array of craft products Siu bought from the hawker stalls, from delicate flower-embroidered slippers and hand-woven baskets to jade rings.

“Most visitors see these things and they are surprised that they still exist,” she says.

There are also several tear-through receipt books with memories and observations from the shopkeepers written inside, and visitors are encouraged to take a leaf home with them.

A display of trinkets gathered from the hawker stalls with weaved coloured paper filled with exhibition visitors’ thoughts. Photo: Come’n Chill at Wanchai
The exhibition at Lee Tung Avenue in Wan Chai. Photo: Come’n Chill at Wanchai

The stall owners all still issue handwritten receipts to customers, a ritual they consider to be a satisfactory completion of a successful sale.

“They feel very happy and loved when people visit their store,” she says. “This is a simple happiness for them.”

Apart from that, visitors are also encouraged to write down their “favourite Wan Chai relaxing activity” to share with others.

Participants in an art activity linked to the exhibition at Blue House in Wan Chai. Photo: Come’n Chill at Wanchai
Visitors on a guided tour of the exhibition. Photo: Come’n Chill at Wanchai

The exhibition includes 18 sketches of the hawker stalls by Charlotte Lui, who is behind the popular Instagram account @moving_drawing.

Instead of using paper or a fabric canvas, Lui drew them on white plastic shopping bags typically used by the stores, and added a distinctive pink, blue, green and yellow row of stitches on the edges to represent the stalls’ colours.

There’s also a compilation of photographs and videos (with English subtitles) of interviews that multimedia artist Elaine Wong conducted with four people in Wan Chai from different age groups, which are accompanied by shelves full of objects that they associate with the district, such as toys and traditional Hong Kong snacks.

“I just want to remind people that we still have lots of good things here,” Siu says.

A wall featuring Charlotte Lui’s drawings of the hawker stalls. Photo: Come’n Chill at Wanchai

“Come’n Chill at Wanchai”, G/F 7 Mallory Street, Wan Chai, Aug 5-12, 12pm-6pm.