Hong Kong’s Central Market has occupied its current site on Des Voeux Road since the 1850s. The building visible today opened in 1939, once a focal point of neighbourhood activity home to more than 200 traders selling fresh produce and other goods to a cross-section of the Hong Kong population. The four-storey concrete structure, a Bauhaus design praised for its streamlined functionality, weathered out World War II and is one of the few surviving public buildings from its era.
After a period of orchestrated decline (Seale, 2016), in 2003 all traders were evicted as Central Market was closed for ‘revitalisation’. Fifteen years later, the building still sits unoccupied but now in desperate need of maintenance and repair. The task of redeveloping this now dilapidated market was handed in 2009 to the Urban Renewal Authority (URA), a quasi-governmental land and property development company that acts, in essence, as a statutory body. But the URA has a patchy reputation. The agency has been repeatedly criticised for its thoughtless handling of conservation projects and its role in a string of controversial developments that have resulted in widespread social displacement.
How can we understand the URA and this pattern of redevelopment? Some have attempted to answer this question with reference to gentrification – but gentrification is a thorny concept, often ill-defined, and there has been considerable resistance to its application in the Hong Kong context. Levelled at those who propose a theory of gentrification that goes beyond its Anglo-American roots is the accusation of ‘conceptual stretching’. Wing-Shing Tang of Hong Kong Baptist University, for instance, has argued that gentrification analyses distract from the complex historical and socio-political phenomena that have shaped the city. Tang makes the important point that theoretical approaches should be allowed to emerge in new urban contexts.
Indeed, the work of the URA is not exactly what the sociologist Ruth Glass had in mind when she coined the term in the 1960s. Focusing on London, Glass described a piecemeal process whereby, one property at a time, the middle class would take over a working-class neighbourhood and transform its social character (Glass, 1964). The affected area may see improvements in its physical condition, crime statistics and number of coffee shops – gentrification has been pursued as public policy for just these reasons. But for Glass gentrification was a critical concept, used to draw attention to the uprooting of the poor and the vulnerable.
The transition from Glass to Hong Kong might seem like a theoretical leap. The sheer scale and speed of the projects associated with the URA are completely unlike anything Glass observed in Islington or Notting Hill. Plus, the question of who does the gentrifying – actors from the private sector or from the state – is an important point of distinction. But it would be a mistake to therefore ignore the relevance of gentrification to Hong Kong.
Two academics based in Hong Kong, Adrienne La Grange and Frederik Pretorius, have written about what they view as a local expression of gentrification. They identify three factors that have given the process a distinct shape: state ownership of (almost) all land, a highly dense urban morphology and the aforementioned URA. The first two of these factors make it difficult for private developers to target older inner-city houses and commercial properties, many of which have remained accessible to lower-income families as a result.
The state-backed URA, however, can directly resume land and has been able to assemble large inner-city sites for upmarket developments. There are compensation agreements and measures to help rehouse affected tenants – and often these settlements are met with enthusiasm. However, La Grange and Pretorius argue that the URA has promoted gentrification if only through the reduction of affordable inner-city buildings and, in turn, the increased competition for what remains.
The story told by La Grange and Pretorius is captured by a recent and intentionally broad definition of gentrification as ‘a displacement process, where wealthier people displace poorer people, and diversity is replaced by social and cultural homogeneity’ (Lees, Shin & López-Morales, 2016, p. 9). A flexible approach to the concept, one that acknowledges supplementary phenomena and local complexities, can be useful for comparing the experiences of cities around the world – useful not only for academics and commentators, but, more importantly, for those threatened by displacement who might learn tactics of negotiation and resistance from other communities.
Returning to Central Market, the threat of social and cultural homogeneity is particularly acute. One design, dubbed the ‘urban oasis’ project, was scrapped in 2015 due to complexity and costs. A simplified version was approved by the Town Planning Board in September 2016, which, the URA claims, aims to preserve the building’s original character.
The fact that the market hasn’t simply been pulled down should be welcomed, even if visual renderings of the building’s redesign show that glass will replace its distinctive concrete façade. But in terms of its future use, with the tokenistic retention of 13 stalls it seems that Central Market will remain a market in name only. Quite how this transformation in social function will preserve the market’s original character is unclear. The URA says that the reopened space will be ‘a leisure landmark with affordable and unique choices of retails [sic] and eateries’ – vague intentions which beg the question: affordable for whom?
No one is suggesting that cities should not change over time. Indeed, few cities have experienced as dramatic a transformation as Hong Kong over the past half century. But change needn’t result in the social ruptures and bland urban typologies that have characterised much of the URA’s work. Places like Central Market can be upgraded – and can still be financially viable – without sacrificing their modest but vital functions. State-led gentrification or not, the loss of such places damages the openness of a city and should be prevented.
Glass, R. (1964). London: Aspects of change. London: MacGibbon & Kee.
Lees, L., Shin, H. B., & López-Morales, E. (2016). Planetary Gentrification. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Seale, K. (2016). Markets, Places, Cities. Abingdon: Routledge.
Daniel Hatt is an MSc student on LSE’s Urbanisation and Development programme, currently undertaking research on smart urbanism in Hong Kong for his dissertation.