Believe it or not, there is a place in Hong Kong that was a market, before even “Hong Kong” as we know it came to be.
Formerly known as Market, the plot of land currently occupied by the Central Market first opened for business on 16 May 1842, months before the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, under which Hong Kong was formally colonised.
For those who have difficulty working out the sequence between the birth of the Market and Hong Kong’s colonial past, the British landed in Hong Kong Island on 25 January 1841. Land auctions and construction took place shortly after the landing. It was under these circumstances that the waterfront land was designated for Market use.
An article titled “The Origins of Hong Kong’s Central Market and the Tarrant Affair” written by Professor Dafydd Emrys Evans, the founding Dean of the University of Hong Kong’s Law faculty, for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch in 1970, detailed activities of Chinese traders in the Market. The Market has always been a place where Chinese traders earned their living, even though the Market was built by the colonial administration.
Since then, the site, bounded by Des Voeux Road on the north, Queen’s Road Central on the south, Jubilee Street on the west and Queen Victoria Street has always been where people shop for their fish, meat and vegetables.
The Market’s opening was a major event for the city. The announcement of its opening appeared on the front page of The Hongkong Gazette, with the headline “Hongkong Market Place”. This is how the news appeared 175 years ago.
“This establishment, which promises much convenience and benefit, will be opened to the Public on Monday morning next, the 16th instant. The whole has been judiciously arranged into separate and well-constructed departments. 1st for all kinds of Meat, 2nd Fruit and Vegetables, 3rd Poultry, 4th Salt Fish, 5th Fresh Fish, 6th Weighing rooms, 7th Money Changers house &c. &c. &c. Its position is central, fronts upon the Queen’s Road, and faces also in a long line on the water. The gentleman to whose spirited enterprise the town is indebted for this convenience, well deserves and will receive the best thanks of its inhabitants.”
Human beings need food or they perish. Nothing is more logical and natural than having a centrally located public market where people can shop for the freshest ingredients. It is not difficult for contemporary readers to imagine the city’s celebratory mood in having a new and centrally located market.
Half a century later, in 1895, the second generation Central Market Building was put up on the same site. While the building was new, the social function of the site remained unchanged. It was still a public market. The completion of the market building in April and its opening on 1 May topped the agenda of the Public Works chapter in the 1895 Hong Kong Annual Report.
The current Central Market building is an outstanding example of modern architecture. Highly valued for its streamlined design and humanistic approach, the building was completed in 1939. Like its predecessor, the new market was opened on 1 May.
The city grows; the land expands, eclipsing Victoria Harbour. Hong Kong weathered war and riots. However, the social function of the site, a public market for all, remained the same.
Unfortunately, contemporary greed means history will be trashed and forgotten. All things public must be privatised. After all, how else could property developers find “land” in a densely built Central? Under the so-called “Conserving Central” plan, the publicly owned Central Market will enter the Urban Renewal Authority’s (URA) land bank. The market-oriented URA will soon remodel the building and tender it for “culture and retail” use.
Given the URA’s remarkable record of destroying the city’s history, cultural heritage and local economy in order to make room for property developers’ upmarket projects, it is not difficult to imagine the Central Market site, after 175 years, ceasing to serve the people of Hong Kong as a public market.
The URA’s way with names, such as turning Wedding Card Street into The Avenue, the Bird Market into Langham Place, the humble New Asian College into Trinity Towers, and Sneakers Street into Skypark, suggests the name Central Market will also disappear. The city’s future generation will be deprived of the knowledge that there was a Central Market in Hong Kong which served the city for 175 years.