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How urban renewal cost Hong Kong historic business districts and handed developers big profits

Wedding Card Street, Cloth Street, Bird Street, home to thriving decades-old businesses dear to Hongkongers’ hearts, were flattened to make way for Lee Tung Avenue, The Center and Langham Place. Traders reflect on their loss

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 6:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 4:38pm

Hong Kong’s urban history may be relatively short, but the city has been developed and redeveloped so many times it already has the layers of a much older metropolis. Next time you walk through a glitzy shopping centre or the lobby of a high-end office tower, you may well be treading on the ruins of a completely different neighbourhood.

Take Lee Tung Avenue for example. The pseudo-colonial buildings that line this leafy shopping and entertainment promenade in Wan Chai are home to imported Japanese brands like Omotesando Koffee and trendy bars like the burlesque-inspired Ophelia.

The bells toll for Wedding Card Street

Until 10 years ago, however, it was the site of what was known as Wedding Card Street because of the many wedding card printers with shops there. Lee Tung Street was razed in December 2007 by the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) despite widespread opposition.

That controversy is still fresh in the minds of many Hongkongers, but others have faded from public memory. In Central, office tower The Center was sold in October for HK$40.2 billion (US$5.1 billion) – believed to be the highest price ever fetched by a single office tower anywhere in the world.

It was a huge windfall for its owner, CK Asset Holdings, whose chairman is Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man. But not much was said about how The Center was conceived or the businesses flattened to make way for the officer tower, which was completed in 1998. 

Travel back a few decades and you would have found a thriving, century-old fabric market on the land where The Center now stands. 

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“Going through Cloth Street was like going through a souk,” recalls art critic and urban planning activist John Batten. “There were no cars and the traders put their swatches of cloth outside, and they had a canopy over the street to protect it from the weather.”

Cloth Street – officially known as Wing On Street – was surrounded by a warren of small lanes. They were a hive of activity. A letter to the editor of the Post in 1916 fumed about the sheer number of hawkers in the area.

“The hawkers are not only causing an obstruction but they make all the neighbourhood insanitary,” wrote the complainant, who signed the letter “Pedestrian”.

Of course, all those hawkers were there for a reason – to sell goods to the many shoppers who flocked to Cloth Street. “It was people-mountain-people-sea,” exclaims Ng Kai-kong, a third-generation fabric merchant whose shop, Three Geniuses, was on Wing On Street. “There were nearly 60 fabric shops around us.”

By the 1980s, however, the fabric market was being described as a slum, and it was slated for clearance by the Land Development Corporation (LDC), a government-backed agency that was founded in 1988 to replace older neighbourhoods with high-value real estate.

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Batten points out that the looming spectre of redevelopment leads to something he calls “planning blight”, a kind of neglect that comes when property owners know they will be bought out for redevelopment.

Ng says many of the buildings around Cloth Street were squalid. “Some of the buildings were so old, they didn’t have toilets – or even any plumbing,” he recalls.

Rather than fix up these historic properties, the LDC unveiled plans for a 73-storey tower designed by architecture firm Dennis Lau & Ng Chun-man. Merchants were forced to sell their properties at 20 per cent less than the market rate.

Some were offered new shops in the Western Market, a handsome 1906 building in nearby Sheung Wan that had been preserved and renovated by the LDC. But many shop owners decided to retire instead. Ultimately, only 18 fabric shops reopened in the new market.

Today, the mezzanine of Western Market is filled with colourful rolls of cotton, silk and wool, but customers are few and far between. On a recent afternoon, Ng is chatting with some fellow merchants.

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“Back on Wing On Street, it was so busy we’d never have time to talk like this,” he says. Nearby, dressed in a dapper wool vest and pinstriped trousers, a merchant named Chan Sen is folding a piece of fabric. His family opened Lee Loy Piece Goods Company on Wing On Street in 1952. “It was a few storeys tall,” he says. “We had tens of employees and lots of business. Now it’s just me.”

A similar story played out across the harbour in Mong Kok. For decades, bird enthusiasts thronged Hong Lok Street, better known as Bird Street, which was a narrow lane that ran parallel to Shanghai Street. Parrots, songbirds, even wild birds caught illegally in the New Territories – they were all for sale along the street’s 100 shops, along with grasshoppers, bird feed and just about every kind of cage.

One Post article from 1981 described a “deafening backdrop of screeching noise”. People didn’t seem to mind. Hong Lok Street was packed every day, and by the 1980s it had become a popular tourist attraction.

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Aside from birds, the lane was a venue for illegal cricket battles. One article from 1975 describes groups of men squatting or sitting on low stools as they watched crickets fight to the death.

“Like the casinos in Macau, cigarettes are provided free to the ‘clients’,” noted reporter Kenneth Chu.

The birdsong was silenced in the mid-1990s, when the LDC bulldozed the blocks around Hong Lok Street, displacing 2,000 families and many more birds. After tough negotiations, 66 merchants were given space in the new Yuen Po Street Bird Garden, a leafy stretch of Chinese-style buildings that opened next to the Mong Kok Flower Market in 1997.

In the place of Bird Street rose Langham Place, a hotel, office and shopping complex that includes a nine-storey glass atrium traversed by a 76-metre-long escalator.

Batten is no fan of Langham Place – in fact, he refused to step inside until a few years ago. “It’s this big hunk of concrete dominating the area,” he says. But he doesn’t mind the new Bird Garden, which is greener and more spacious than the old Bird Street.

“Traders have taken over and made it their own space,” he says.

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The same is true for Western Market, but not for much longer. Chan Sen says the fabric merchants have been ordered to vacate the space by next July as the URA, which manages the space, prepares for renovations. “It’s in someone else’s hands now,” he says. “That is how this society is.”