City Weekend

Explainer: how did Hong Kong become a retail hub and how have our consumer habits changed?

From department stores to dai pai dongs, a look at how consumerism took hold of the city

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 6:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 November, 2017, 9:11am

Dubbed a “paradise” for shopaholics, Hong Kong is known to offer an abundance of goods from high-end fashion brands to busy local markets.

Tourists are often seen unzipping empty suitcases outside shops to pile in their purchases, taking advantage of the city’s free port. And local residents also indulge in freewheeling consumerism.

Earlier this year, a survey by environmental NGO Greenpeace found Hongkongers spent on average HK$10,000 on clothing per year. That meant HK$25 billion in total was spent on clothing annually in the city.

In support of this finding, the overall retail sector expanded in each of the six months leading up to October, with sales at department stores growing 5.2 per cent and total sales rising 2.7 per cent year-on-year for the month of August.

But how did Hong Kong become a retail hub in the first place? And what has changed over the years?

The rise of the department store

In January 1900, mainland-born Ma Yingbao returned from working in Sydney, Australia, to set up Sincere department store on Queen’s Road Central. He invested HK$25,000.

Sincere was the city’s first department store, and combined Western and Chinese cultures. Ma only hired natives of his home county of Zhongshan, in Guangdong province, to work at the store. He drilled into them the great importance of a strong work ethic, and went so far as to host Christian religious services on site each Sunday morning to try to ensure they led “moral” lives.

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After Sincere threw open its doors, brothers James Gocklock and Philip Gockchin followed a similar entrepreneurial path. In 1907, fresh from Australia, the two set up Wing On department store. Like Sincere, it remains in business today and has been a local institution ever since.

To attract more customers and spur additional income, both Sincere and Wing On set up entertainment quarters on their rooftops. But other than the two stores, the city’s retail sector was dominated by locally-owned market stalls and shops, with Nathan Road in Kowloon a major tourist attraction.

Japanese retail blitz

Fast forward to the 1960s and the first Japanese-style department store, Daimaru, opened with fanfare as 4,000 guests rocked up for a drinks party to announce its arrival. The modern, international store featured a supermarket, Japanese dining room and Italian tea room, alongside goods to be sold.

Daimaru was followed by Matsuzakaya, in 1975. Then came Japan’s largest department store chain, Mitsukoshi, in 1981, and Sogo, in 1985. All held forth in Causeway Bay, which acquired the nicknames “Little Ginza” and “Little Japan”.

Of the four, only Sogo remains. And it no longer operates under Japanese ownership, having been sold in 2001 to local property developers.

Shopping malls’ emergence

In 1966, the city’s first shopping centre, Ocean Terminal, debuted. Then Hong Kong governor David Trench attended the mall’s unveiling in Kowloon, where he stood among 2,000 guests. In a sign of the British colony’s burgeoning wealth, Ocean Terminal boasted 112 shops catering to the demand for individually branded shops.

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The shopping centre concept evolved into large-scale venues linked to MTR stations with restaurants, cinemas, children’s play areas and ice rinks, such as those of Pacific Place in Admiralty and Cityplaza in Taikoo Shing. These attracted international brands for the first time, from Marks and Spencers to Gucci.

Another significant milestone in the city’s retail history arose from an immigration policy. In 2003 and still reeling from the Sars epidemic, Hong Kong introduced the Individual Visit Scheme, a travel policy that made it easier than ever for mainland Chinese to visit the city. The scheme brought cash-rich mainland visitors and foretold the trend of luxury shops lining prime shopping streets. Storefronts would go on to command some of the highest rentals worldwide.

Dai pai dongs

Dai pai dongs are a staple of Hong Kong cuisine and local culture. Literally meaning “big licence hall”, thousands of the open-air food outlets used to dot city streets and alleyways. Their hallmarks were steel kitchens, a lack of air-conditioning and traditional cooked Cantonese dishes offered at cheap prices.

In an attempt to control their scope, the government stopped issuing licences to dai pai dong owners in 1956. Authorities also limited the transfer of licences already in hand, meaning they could be taken up only by spouses after the licence holder’s death. Without a spouse, a licence would expire.

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In 1975, the city’s first indoor cooked food centre opened, and in a further bid to control the practice, many dai pai dongs were moved indoors. In 1983, officials began buying back licences from holders, removing them from the streets in the name of better hygiene. The moves elicited criticism as many fretted this distinctive aspect of Hong Kong culture was being left to die out.

Where there used to be 3,000 cheap, local eats serving customers at stalls as they enjoyed the sights and sounds of the streets around them, there are now just 25.


Old-fashioned street hawkers tell a similar story, with their ranks shrinking from an estimated 70,000 sellers in 1946, according to the Hong Kong Hawkers Association. Today they number about 6,000.

Hawking is the age-old practice of selling cheap food from stalls and street carts. Traditional dishes include che zai mian (cart noodles), gai dan jai (bubble waffles) and stinky bean curd.

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In the 1970s , the government stopped issuing new licences and declared hawkers should relocate into public market buildings. This was meant to regulate trade and stemmed from concerns about public sanitation and safety hazards. In 1973, the government issued its last hawking licence, and a hawker control unit was established to monitor illegal sellers.

But 2009 saw policies relax slightly, as 61 new ice-cream vendor licences were handed out. But the reprieve proved fleeing. In 2013, authorities offered hawkers HK$120,000 to surrender their licences. Within a year, some 310 gave them up.

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Food trucks

As many called on officials to find ways to preserve local traditions, food trucks became a focal point of city policy when it came to food culture. In December 2015, former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announced the legalisation of food trucks – an initiative that would cost HK$600,000. Yet, days before, some local hawkers were chased away by government inspectors and police. This development led many to criticise food trucks as imitating overseas culture rather than preserving the city’s diverse local heritage. At present, the scheme has drawn a mixed response from the public.