Why Hong Kong's Central Market heritage makeover will succeed where others fail

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Strolling through the newly renovated Central Market last week, I felt surprisingly sentimental. It didn’t happen with bigger renovation projects in Hong Kong’s Central district, such as PMQ and Tai Kwun. Those historic sites had grander ambitions but not the same emotional connection for me.

Maybe it’s because my mother didn’t take me to those places when I was a kid (that’s right, my mom and I never went to Tai Kwun when it was Central Prison).

But I still have vague memories of the old market, navigating grimy stalls to buy fresh meat for dinner. The place didn’t smell particularly nice – does any wet market? – and I hated having to dodge all the dirty puddles to keep my canvas shoes clean.

But setting foot inside the reopened site stirred some real nostalgia, like catching up with an old classmate. The old, utilitarian relic now has a new life.

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The old market’s grimy stalls have been replaced. Photo: Sam Tsang

Some people really like it, but others, with higher expectations, not as much. I think grass-roots advocates hoped for more community-based or cultural usage instead of a bunch of commercial retail and food and beverage tenants. But that’s wishful thinking in Hong Kong.

Such idealists might as well join hands and imagine all the people with no greed or hunger, sharing all the world and living life in peace. Sorry, no Leninists (or Lennonists) here.

I doubt I’ll be back to some of the novelty shops in Central Market or even have a bite regularly at the food and beverage outlets, but for the most part, I think Chinachem has done a nice job. At least there isn’t a 50-storey tower built on top. For now, above it is only sky.

After remaining dormant for 20 years, the spruced up Bauhaus architecture looks contemporary and welcoming. In contrast, Tai Kwun or PMQ always felt like entering a renovated museum.

Central Market never had such lofty heritage cachet. So, big deal that the outlets inside sell overpriced coffee and snacks. This is Central. It was never going to be a cheap cooked-food centre. And it wasn’t ever going back to being a market, especially since the Urban Renewal Authority is building a new home for street stalls one block away on Graham Street.

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Inside the renovated Central Market. Photo: Sam Tsang

In fact, I’m more optimistic about Central Market’s future than some of the other recent historic renovations. If nothing else, the market’s second floor remains a connecting thoroughfare from the Mid-Levels escalator to IFC, which means it will always maintain a certain traffic flow.

I worry the other Central revitalisation sites will slowly become urban white elephants again. Tai Kwun was supposed to be an arts hub, but its main relevance now is the restaurants and bars inside. The open courtyard is a lovely alfresco setting.

As for PMQ, it seems to be emptying out fast. Every time I’ve been there recently, the place is dead. There’s little sense of life or community. The atrium marketplace is mostly a ghost town. I think its minders are flogging a dead horse trying to realise its noble but ill-conceived aim to be a hub for young creative entrepreneurs. The reality is there are cheaper and more conducive locations for poor creative types to incubate their ideas than Mid-Levels.

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The revitalised Central Market building feels contemporary. Photo: Sam Tsang

I still think PMQ could be a terrific destination if they turned the outdoor space into a weekend (if not nightly) food market. Imagine some curry fish balls, deep-fried pig intestine, fake shark’s fin soup and a decent char siu and roast duck rice in those retro surroundings?

Of course, it will require some real work and commitment to make it happen. But Hong Kong has always been a dining city, and food and drinks should be a focal part of such iconic spaces. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a bit of a waste right now.

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