A few months from now, Hong Kong will lose its last piece of pre-war modern architecture, designed and built for the ordinary man and woman on the street. The historic Central Market, which survived World War II, as well as bombs in the 1967 riots, will not escape the Urban Renewal Authority’s bulldozers.

The profit-driven URA has already obtained approval from the Executive Council to transform the market building into a so-called “cultural and retail space.” This marks the second time the URA has demolished an example of Hong Kong’s heritage which was built for ordinary traders and shoppers.

central market
The Central Market. Photo: Sing Chan@Rufixation.

A decade ago, its bulldozers destroyed a large chunk of the Wan Chai Market, built in 1937, reducing the historic building to nothing more than the entrance hall for a luxury property project and an upscale furniture shop. Yet, the URA insists its brutal treatment of the Wan Chai Market was in the name of “preservation.”

According to the URA, reconstruction work on the Central Market will begin in the autumn of this year. Again, the URA uses the term “preservation”. But is it really so?

Under the approved scheme, all the 285 stalls designed and built in the mid-1930s for small-scale traders to run their businesses will be demolished. The facade facing Des Voeux Road will also be removed and replaced by a transparent structure in order to “enhance visual permeability of the building”.

This is not the end of the URA’s “preservation” plan. The wall facing Jubilee Street and Queen Victoria Street will also be “opened up to enhance accessibility and connectivity”. So what will be left after the URA’s “preservation”? A shell? Or only part of a shell?

The Central Market was completed in 1939. It is a grade three historic building. Yet, the current grading fails to reflect the fact that the Market building is the last piece of pre-war modern architecture designed and built for the ordinary population.

The handful of remaining pre-war modern buildings are in private hands, and the public has no access to them. After the demolition and privatization of the Wan Chai Market by the URA, the Central Market is the only surviving pre-war, modern public building that everyone in Hong Kong can visit.

central market
The Central Market. Photo: Sing Chan@Rufixation.

Pre-war Hong Kong was a city dominated by classical architecture. It was only in the 1950s that buildings of a modern style flourished. The Central Market, a landmark piece of architecture by the Public Works Department in 1939, represents a bold and visionary decision by the government architects. It tells a story of architects building with public needs in mind, seamlessly integrating local requirements with modern Western architecture.

With the welfare of small vendors and shoppers in mind, the building is equipped with big windows on the external walls, and a large atrium in the centre, allowing optimal sunlight and air for the users at a time when electricity was very costly. Therefore, both vendors and shoppers were able to use the space with ease.

The stalls, which the URA will soon remove to pave the way for tendering the historic building to the highest bidder, were designed and built to give the small vendors every convenience in running their businesses.

A research study conducted in 2011 by Prof. Vito Bertin, Prof. Gu Daqing and Prof. Woo Pui-leng of the School of Architecture, Chinese University of Hong Kong, found that the market consisted of five types of stalls designed for six key trades – poultry and fish on the ground floor, pork and beef on the first floor, and vegetables and fruits on the second floor.

central market
The Central Market. Photo: Sing Chan@Rufixation.

In the days when only the wealthiest could afford automobiles, built-in racks were to be found on both ends of every floor, so that vendors could park their bicycles. Back then, bicycles were used to deliver goods to customers.

With these built-in stalls and racks, vendors could start their businesses without extra investment. Therefore, the stalls and bicycle racks were the heart and soul of the building. They illustrated how the architects of the Central Market had the welfare of the “grassroots” in their minds.

Unfortunately, these racks will also go because in the eyes of URA executives, these interior fixtures severely weaken the building’s flexibility as a planned “culture and retail space”. In other words, they reduce the profitability of tendering the market to the private sector.

A study conducted by Dr. Han Man, a scholar in architecture at CUHK, suggests that there were nine buildings of modern style in pre-war Hong Kong, four of which were government buildings. The four were the Wan Chai Market, the Central Market, the Government Store and The Northcote Training College.

The Wan Chai Market was bisected by the URA a decade ago. The windows were sealed off. The external fins, which acted as rain shelters for pedestrians and interior stalls, were also severely trimmed. All the key features that highlighted the Wan Chai Market’s history and functions were eliminated.

central market
Photo: Sing Chan@Rufixation.

The Government Store was demolished years ago. The Northcote Training College, built in 1941, was turned into a primary school.

The Central Market is the only surviving modern style building from before the war that the public can still freely access. Sadly, the Central Market will soon have its organs removed and its skin peeled off by the URA’s version of preservation.

It is of crucial importance to Hong Kong and its future generations that the Central Market is preserved with minimal intervention. This means that the stalls, bicycle racks, big windows, atrium, and collective integrity are preserved. It is vital that we and our children should understand the stories of our grandparents and the road they travelled in building Hong Kong.

Prof. Woo Pui-leng, a retired architect, once explained that modern architecture has no extravagant walls nor fancy ornaments. Modern architecture was about breaking away from unnecessary and pretentious decorations and returning to the basic, i.e. the function of a piece of architecture.

The beauty and soul of modern architecture lies in the users’ experience, their convenience, welfare and comfort. It is shameful that the Central Market survived war and riot, but will be demolished by contemporary greed.

Chloe Lai is a journalist-turned-urbanist. She is a PhD in Comparative Literature. Archaeology of the present is her favour way to see the world and conduct researches. She is chairperson of the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage.