Hong Kong's historical districts, buildings at risk as profit maximized

Redevelopment of Western Market in Sheung Wan reflects spoiling of HK's unique charm

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 3:11am

The 107-year-old Western Market in Sheung Wan is one of the few Edwardian buildings remaining in Hong Kong but the redevelopment of the beautiful building under the management of the Urban Renewal Authority and its predecessor agency over the past 22 years has disappointed.

Its unique design and history means it should be able to attract many visitors. But the lack of an overall development concept means it now looks like a small shopping mall.

The authority has reportedly appointed consultants to review the development of Western Market and suggest new ideas. One of the ideas is to turn it into a red wine centre. That prompted the owners of the well-known fabric stores on the second floor to worry they would have to move out.

Their shops used to be in Wing On Street in Sheung Wan, known as Fabric Alley because of its many fabric outlets.

In 1991, the shops were relocated to Western Market as the Land Development Corporation redeveloped the old buildings in Wing On Street into The Center, a grade A office building in Central.

If they have to move out again, confidence in the Urban Renewal Authority's will to protect local businesses will falter. Indeed, it will become a challenge for it to acquire old flats and shops for redevelopment in the future.

Over the last few years, the authority has been trying to preserve the local character of the city's districts by introducing restrictions on land leases in redevelopment projects.

Our streets are losing character and variety, as shops target … tourists instead of locals

Projects such as the Sai Yee Street (Sneaker Street) development will offer sports goods retailers who used to operate shops on the site leases in the new project. That is, in fact, one of the incentives for retailers to give up their old shops.

But if you were such a retailer, would you be willing to give up your shop after seeing how the fabric shops at Western Market are being treated?

It is true that Western Market has to be improved. A red wine centre is not a bad idea and it may attract many shoppers.

However, fabric shops have become iconic of Western Market - they are part of its history. If they have to move out and the whole building is turned into a red wine centre, it would become just another beautiful building without its own character.

Just look at Wanchai Market. Part of the 76-year-old building has been torn down for the development of One Wanchai, a residential project developed by locally listed Chinese Estates and the Urban Renewal Authority. The developers kept only a small part of the original structure, which become the lobby of the residential building. It is another new residential development without any character.

Fabric shops do not generate fortunes. They are unable to afford the expensive rents outside the market.

Red wine is popular in Hong Kong but it can't represent Hong Kong.

Mainland tourists have come to dominate our retail market in recent years. This has led to international luxury brands, cosmetic shops and drug stores expanding aggressively, forcing up rents.

That has forced many local shops to close. Our streets are losing character and variety, as shops target mainland tourists instead of locals. Of course, we can't expect private landlords to sacrifice rental income and lease space to local retailers.

But the Urban Renewal Authority has a responsibility to our society and should do more to preserve buildings with heritage and unique characters, instead of just maximizing income.

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