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.