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The Future of Graham Street Market

Central’s vibrant Graham Street Market will soon be relegated to history. Did the site’s developers—who promised to save the area six years ago—actually kill off the city’s oldest wet market? Yannie Chan investigates. Photos by Chris Luk.

By Yannie Chan | Oct 31, 2013

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  • The Future of Graham Street Market
    Goodbye, Graham Street
  • The Future of Graham Street Market
    Graham Street Market on a Monday afternoon

Graham Street Market isn’t always a pleasant place. It’s often dirty, noisy and crowded. You’ve probably been glared at for bumping into someone’s grocery bags. You’ve probably been yelled at by a vendor or two for scoffing at a price. But the little market in the middle of Central, right beside the Mid-Levels escalator, is an authentic and lively testament to the real Hong Kong. Though fairly modest in size: 38 operators spread across three streets—Graham, Gage and Peel—the market provides fresh, affordable produce to residents across Hong Kong. Everything from meat to vegetables to dried seafood, Chinese medicine and incense. The city’s oldest market has fought and lived for 172 years in a rapidly developing city—but it might not survive the Urban Renewal Authority.

The Urban Renewal Authority is a quasi-governmental, profit-making body, formed in 2001 to promote and undertake urban regeneration in Hong Kong. In July 2007 the URA announced plans to demolish the old tong laus on Graham and Peel Streets—in the process, tearing down the Graham Street Market. In its place, there would be four high-rises: two residential blocks, one office building and one hotel. After local activists put up a fight, the authority promised to clear one area, “Site B,” first, and build a two-story wet market complex to rehouse affected shop owners, before starting work on the other two sites, “A” and “C” (see map, below). All well and good.


Graham Street Market (highlighted in orange)

Except six years later, there’s still no sign of the agreed new wet market, and the URA is taking action regardless—they’ve sent vendors eviction letters, and made known fresh details that suggest most of the stall owners will have no help from the URA in finding a new home on the redeveloped Graham Street. The three streets are in uproar. Activists and legislators fear that if the community doesn’t step in, the market could be completely eradicated as early as next March. With Graham Street going the way of Central Market in 2003, the neighborhood won’t even have a market at all.


A New Wet Market… for Some

After a string of negotiations, the URA’s plans to conserve the market were finally passed in 2008. Even activists such as Katty Law, convener of the Central and Western Concern Group, were happy with the result. “It wasn’t ideal, but it was acceptable,” she says. “So we moved our efforts to monitoring the URA instead.” But compare the URA’s statements in early stages to how they’ve executed those claims in real life, and you’ll see: the devil’s in the details.

Originally presented as an effort to “conserve the market,” in reality the URA’s promised new wet market will only conserve half of the stores—and that’s not even including the 18 green tin stalls that line the streets. There are only 10 shop spaces available in the new complex, and those are intended exclusively for vendors selling wet goods, such as fish, vegetables, fruits and meat.

While the authority had disclosed certain details to the District Council and Legco—such as the wet-goods-only restriction—the URA appears not to have informed the majority of the vendors. Six years later the stall owners were shocked to find out, in an October 15 meeting with the URA, that the conditions had changed. Hui Wai-kin, owner of Sun Hing Meat Wholesale (23 Gage St.) and an active leader in the community, remembers hearing the bombshell. “We always assumed that a ‘wet market’ would include wet and dry goods, like any other wet markets in the city,” Hui says. “If you can’t buy herbs after buying meat in the new wet market, is that still a proper market? The diversity we currently see on Graham Street is what makes it so popular.”

At least nine shops, including two 70-something-year-old restaurants, Sun King Kee (7 Gage St.) and Dragon Restaurant (3-5 Gage St.), are ineligible for a place in the new market. URA spokesperson Dikky Sinn explains: “When we discussed the conservation of the market, we agreed that the wet goods stores were the priority.” We ask if that means the URA believes that dry goods stores don’t count as part of the market, but she doesn’t elaborate.


Hui Wai-kin, 63, owner of Sun Hing Meat Wholesale:
“I think that more than 100 people will lose their jobs if the market closes.”


Rock and a Hard URA

The new wet market has been sold as the key feature that will conserve Graham Street, but it seems to be failing before construction has even begun. In 2009, the Authority introduced the Local Fresh Food Shop Arrangement: vendors could secure a spot in the new market by giving up the compensation fee—worth up to several hundred thousand dollars—they’d otherwise receive for allowing the URA to acquire their shops. The URA says that among the eligible shops, only two have taken up the offer.

“Now the URA is using that statistic to suggest they did their part, and that it’s us who are not keen to join,” says Amy Leung, whose family owns the 30-year-old So Ha Vegetables Company (24 Graham St.) “But the conditions were so risky; it felt like the URA wanted us to be gone. If we opt to relocate somewhere else, great. If we stay, the stakes are high.” Not only were vendors asked to give up their compensation fee, but they also knew nothing about the spot they would be allocated: “We didn’t know the size, the rent, the opening year… nothing. And with only 10 shops, the market might organically dissolve anyway,” Leung adds.

Green tin stalls, the URA maintains, are not part of the redevelopment project and will be allowed to operate. But stall owners tell us their businesses hinge on the market’s shops as well. “They sell fresh goods that people need every day, and they bring customers to me,” says Brownie Yau, who sells flowers from her green tin stall outside 12 Graham Street. “When they’re closed on Sundays, my business dwindles.” No market, no foot traffic. No foot traffic, no business.

You’d think the URA would want vendors to thrive in the market, given that their stated goal was “to save the shrinking market.” The terms, however, seem to make it harder to do business. The URA says it will charge rent at market rates, and that it can’t promise anything after the three-year lease is up. Community leader Hui is worried. “Empty shops on Gage Street are now asking $100,000 to $180,000 [per month]. I made some calculations and found that I’d have to double the price of beef in order to cover costs—which of course can’t happen.” He’s committed to his community: but if his business can’t survive, Hui admits he’d have no choice but to leave after three years.


Tong Kan-chi (L), 66, and his mother, owners of Sun King Kee Noodle:
“The shop and I were featured in a government promotion campaign,
‘HK Our Home.’ Now they’re asking us to leave.”


An Inconvenient Truth

The URA’s latest eviction order has renewed the discussion around the project, and it might be the best way to illustrate the worst fears of activists and legislators: that the URA’s decision-making process is unpredictable. In June 2010, the Development Bureau made a promise on paper that vendors would be allowed “to continue their operation” and that construction on the rest of the Graham Street project would only go ahead once a new wet market building was complete.

Katty Law fought hard to get the URA to agree to that condition. “It was our bottom line. The least we could do was to make sure that the vendors who are eligible to operate in the new wet market can seamlessly move into the new complex,” Law says. “If not, the cost of moving and closing business is too high. It will discourage traders from remaining.”

But that promise was broken when the URA ordered vendors out of their shops by the end of this year. Though the eviction notices were rescinded a few weeks ago following vocal protests, The URA told HK Magazine that the promise only applied to the two shop owners who participated in the Local Fresh Food Shop Arrangement. Law feels like she’s understanding the URA anew. “They never told me. My understanding is that the URA promised a phased redevelopment so that disruptions to the market could be minimized,” she says. “If it only applies to the two vendors, then how is the promise fulfilled? It’s absurd.”

A URA spokesman told us that the vendors were asked to move out because “the wet trade retail block… is estimated to be completed in mid-2015.” As for why they can’t clear out by the end of 2014 instead, the URA cited “operational arrangements” but did not go into detail. As of press time, it has yet to confirm when vendors will be asked to leave.


Li Kam-shung (R), 54, owner of Dragon Restaurant,
and his wife: “Our roasted meat tastes the same as
when we first started. Customers can confirm that.”


The Vendor’s Dilemma

Vendors are finding themselves trapped by the way the URA approaches the stakeholders. Especially with stall owners, the developer seems mostly to communicate verbally, rather than via any form of documented correspondence.  

Preferable, at the outset, seeing how busy the vendors are. But verbal communication becomes a problem when there’s a huge gap between what the authority says, and what is stated in black and white. For instance, at least five vendors claim that the URA told them not to worry if they didn’t join the Local Fresh Food Shop Arrangement: they would still be able to secure a spot in the new market. URA spokesperson Sinn, however, says that the URA “might” lease a shop “through public auction,” meaning that long-standing Graham Street tenants will have to compete with all-comers: a money game they’re hardly guaranteed to win. “We’re not smart. We haven’t studied much,” says Amy Leung of So Ha Vegetables. “I made the mistake of believing a lot of the URA’s claims.” The URA is firm in saying that it explained the terms very clearly to the vendors.

Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, a legislator and ex-Civic Party chairman, began looking into the redevelopment in 2012. He met directly with URA chief Victor So Hing-wo, and has found the URA to be rather casual with its verbal promises. “I gave So a list of my requests: bring in dry foods and cooked food vendors into the new market, build more shops, and so on,” he says. “So was all smiles and said all of the ideas were great and he would consider them.” No more came of it.

The URA’s choice to communicate verbally keeps things fluid. So fluid, in fact, that vendors are continually led to believe that the current plans are likely to change: it stops them from fighting the URA. That has effectively crippled the vendors’ ability to assert their rights. “If I had known that the URA would back down from its words, I would have fought with my life to make sure dry goods were also included in the new plan,” says Alan Wong Kam-ming, second-generation owner of Fook Sang Cheung Joss Company (21 Peel St.). His shop selling joss and paper offerings will have to close down after Graham Street Market is cleared.


Tony Yu (L) and his wife Amy Leung (R), 30s, owners of So Ha Vegetables Company:
“A compensation fee is not enough. We’re young and we need to continue running the stall.”


Legalities and Technicalities

But the URA’s preference for verbal communication doesn’t apply to all situations. In 2009, a license agreement was signed between the URA and each affected shop owner, in which the URA acquired the vendors’ shops and rented them back to stall owners at half the market rate.

That’s great news—except that vendors are still paying the rent in full, with the URA refunding the difference by the end of the financial year. If the vendors do not comply with the URA’s regulations, the authority has the right to keep the full amount. It also allows the URA to order an eviction whenever it decides to develop the other two Graham Street sites, contrary to the hard-fought compromise to not evict traders before the wet market was ready. “The URA’s way of communicating with market operators, which are in fact the biggest affected stakeholder in the project, has created a situation where vendors are at the mercy of the URA,” says Kenneth Chan Ka-lok.

Are the vendors aware that the URA bypassed its own promise in the agreement? “Who has time to read the agreements?” says egg seller Wong Chun-yeung. The owner of dumpling and traditional food stall Sam Yeung Ho (12 Graham St.), Yuen Wai-ching agrees: “I don’t remember where I put that agreement. Might have tossed it away.” She’s just discovered that despite four years of assurances, her shop is ineligible for the new wet market space. She’s gone from a happy business owner to a woman looking for answers.


Alan Wong Kam-ming, 39, Fook Sang Cheung Joss Company:
“The URA’s job is to also keep the ‘software’ of the market:
the spirit, the street culture, the people.”


‘People First’

Although the URA’s manifesto says that it takes a “people first, district-based and public participatory approach to urban renewal,” at the end of the day, it’s a profit-making body. While it’s natural for the URA to want to cover its costs, problems arise when it puts profit, not people, first. Katty Law was shocked when in 2007 she urged then-URA-chief Barry Cheung Chun-yuen to cut several floors from the four new high-rises. The URA, she says, was unwilling to compromise because “they can’t risk losing money.”

“The URA always put its interests first,” the Civic Party’s Kenneth Chan observes. “Victor So Hing-wo once told me not to worry about the strict conditions stipulated on a contract with the vendors. He said the terms were only to protect the URA, and that they would be actually be more flexible. “I remember thinking ‘oh, that’s what your ‘people-first’ approach means’.”


Yuen Wai-ching, late 50s, owner of Sam Yeung Ho Food Company:
“All I want is to stay in the market. Why can’t the URA do that?”


What Now?

Things aren’t looking good. Vendors spend most of their days attending to their businesses, and most remain confused about the URA’s plans and decisions. Some are angry. But much of the anger is already diffusing, after another assurance from the URA to consider their requests. Pro-establishment legislator Wong Kwok-hing has teamed up with some of the market vendors, tabling several proposals for extra compensation and a plan to move out starting next March. The writing’s on the wall.

What happens if the URA’s plans come to fruition? “Relocation is almost impossible for me,” says Yau Luk of Sweet Heart Fresh Fruit Store (19 Peel St.) “Just building a new freezer will cost more than $300,000.” Tong Kan-chi of Sun King Kee Noodles (7 Gage St.) echoes the sentiment:“If the URA doesn’t help us, I don’t see how we can find an affordable shop site in Central.”

Over the days we visited the market, shopkeepers were busy talking to reporters, legislators and activists. Not to mention the community meetings, URA meetings and meetings with legislators. Legislator Kenneth Chan Ka-lok is worried about many things, but his biggest worry is vendors willingly giving up their rights. “We all know that feeling,” he says. “Most vendors are already quite old. It’s much easier to just quit. That’s when we will truly lose the market.”

 


What You Can Do

  1. Lobby the URA. Get involved by shooting an email to inquiry@mail1.ura.org.hk. Kenneth Chan Ka-lok organized a petition and collected 200 signatures in an hour. “The support is there, but it’s crucial those supporting the vendors express their view directly to the URA,” Chan says. “Email them and ask them for details about the new wet market: can more vendors get in? When will it be completed? The redevelopment project aims to improve the community. Hongkongers are entitled to have their opinions heard and considered.”
     
  2. Support Upcoming Campaigns. The Central and Western Concern Group is organizing a resistance, with several campaign ideas in the works. “It’s going to be a long, slow fight,” Katty Law tells us. “We have to keep pressuring the URA to write down on paper what they promise and make sure any concessions are delivered.” Join the Facebook page at facebook.com/Grahamstreetmarket for updates.
     
  3. Show Some Love. “We’re quite moved by the support shown to us,” Sweet Heart Fresh Fruit Store’s Yau Luk says. “I’d like to thank them.” Kenneth Chan believes it’s as easy as expressing your support while you grab some vegetables for your evening meal: “Show them they matter,” he says. “If they feel needed, they’ll have more motivation to fight.”

A Market Timeline

1841 Graham Street Market opens, known as the “Chinese Market.”

1950s The market thrives as refugees from China become street traders.

1975 Queen Elizabeth II graces the market with a visit.

1990s Central-Mid-Levels escalators open; vendors start to sell western vegetables.

2003 Central Market closes. Business is driven to Graham Street Market

2007 URA announces the redevelopment; later agrees to build new wet market.

2009 Demolition of Site B.

2012 Cheung Kong (Holdings) Limited wins Site B contract.

2013 Vendors ordered to leave, date TBC. New wet market incomplete.

2014-2015 The end?

 

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