There are few landmarks in Hong Kong with a history quite like this. Amid the skyscrapers at the heart of a constantly evolving skyline lies Central Market, Hong Kong’s first wet market, which opened in 1842, a few months before Hong Kong officially became a colony of the British Empire. Born from a bustling bazaar, the building itself has undergone several incarnations in its 178-year lifetime, but still occupies the same location between Des Voeux Road and Queen’s Road Central. Having lain dormant for more than 17 years, the market is due a HK$740 million makeover that will transform an abandoned concrete eyesore into a functional space designed to be used by everyone.
In its heyday, the area would have been filled with the sound of haggling, the smell of the catch of the day, vibrant streaks of colour from flower shops and rows upon rows of fresh produce, including fruits, vegetables and meats. Now, the building, its toilets and elevated walkways are used by commuters crossing the busy main road and domestic workers from Southeast Asia, who gather for picnics on Sundays, their day off.
In the past, urban regeneration in Hong Kong typically involved smashing down the old and replacing it with new, higher-density buildings, but recent years have seen the government take greater care taken in preserving heritage structures, such as Tai Kwun and PMQ (the former Police Married Quarters) in SoHo, both now hubs for arts and culture. “I used to follow my parents to the Central Market when I was a child. The market was always busy, noisy and smelly, particularly in the summer,” says Douglas So, founder and director of Hong Kong’s F11 Foto Museum and a conservation enthusiast.
A sudden influx of foreign merchants entering Hong Kong from the UK after the Anglo-Chinese opium war in 1841 led to a surge in construction and infrastructure development. With more carpenters, scaffolders and architects in the vicinity came more food vendors. With its prime position next to Victoria Harbour, Central Market promised “much convenience and benefit” to Hongkongers, according to the Hong Kong Gazette, a government newsletter.
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The four-storey establishment’s fourth and most recent rebuild happened in 1938, when the current Bauhaus-style design was introduced. “The building displays inspirations from modern architecture alongside streamlined facades and curved corners, which are more elements of classical design,” says So. A grand staircase led to more than 200 shops—from food vendors and tailors to cleaners and money changers—with high ceilings, lots of natural light and modern ventilation systems.
In 1996, the market was listed as a Grade-III historic building by Hong Kong’s antiquities and monuments office (AMO) and features on the Central and Western heritage trail, an urban route created by the AMO to link together historic buildings in the area. In 2009, six years after operations ceased at the site, the government began public consultations on what to do with the building, but the process became mired in bureaucracy.
In 2017, after scaling back its initially far costlier designs, the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) was finally given the go-ahead to revitalise the site into a 130,000 sq ft modern landmark, with affordable shops and fresh produce stalls. Maintaining its authenticity and cultural significance is a high priority: “There will be no luxury brand shops or bland, homogenised retail shops…cultural and affordable retail shops that incorporate multipurpose use such as greenery and public open space will be encouraged,” reads the plan laid out on the Central Market website.
Though there have been delays in the project, the URA is hoping the renovation will be completed by 2022, with better connections to nearby streets and an elevated façade, creating a new leisure destination. “The Central Market has layers of rich cultural significance,” So says. “It is important to achieve a balance between heritage conservation and adaptive reuse of the building. The key will be to give new life to the old building, with a fresh mission, character and energy. Having served at least six generations of Hongkongers, one thing is clear: Central Market will soon once again open for business.
See also: 10 Unexpectedly Revitalised Historic Sites in Hong Kong: Now and Then
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