FABRIC OF THE CITY

Is this famous Hong Kong market under threat? Yen Chow Street Hawker Bazaar has had a curse of demolition hanging over it for several years now. But so far it seems to be hanging on – though we could say “hanging by a thread”.

When I was a kid in the 1950s and early 60s, everybody’s mum sewed – it wasn’t a matter of whether they liked doing it or not – it’s just something they did, and there was a sewing machine to be found in almost every house. Making one’s own clothes wasn’t a “hobby”. I don’t sew today – I did inherit my mother’s sewing machine and I did make some curtains and even made a few skirts and dresses, but there’s not much room in Hong Kong apartments for sewing machines! But I remain fascinated by bolts of fabric – the colours, the textures, the possibilities, even though there’s no way I’m ever going to make any article of clothing or home décor ever again.

Street sign for Yen Chow Street Hawker Bazaar, Kowloon, Hong Kong

But you don’t need to be a home dressmaker to patronise fabric stores – and Hong Kong isn’t short of tailors and dressmakers, or at least “greater HK” incorporating Shenzhen, isn’t. Plus, the industrial heritage of all those garment manufacturers means the city turns out fashion graduates by the yard… And the city’s best known fabric market is the Yen Chow Street Hawker Bazaar.

Two students entering Yen Chow fabric market, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Local fashion students preparing for a shopping spree

It’s located in Sham Shui Po in Kowloon, one of the old industrial/residential areas of Kowloon, and has been in existence for around 40 years. It specialises in fabric, and has been in the news lately because it’s slated for demolition, and the plot developed into public housing. Like much of Hong Kong, the bazaar is not exactly pretty – forget picturesque and quaint European markets, this is full-on HK. That means makeshift, packed to the rafters and it works, it’s stifling in the sub-tropical summer heat and miserable in the pouring rain. It has no permanent roof, just tarpaulin. There are well over 150 stalls packed in the space. The aisles are narrow and every stall is piled high with bolts of fabric. Heaven forbid you choose the one right at the bottom of the stack!

It’s long been popular with fashion students – the material here tends to be cheaper than other markets or street stalls, and, as one customer told me, you get your fabric there and then (though you may have to call the mobile number scrawled on card above the stall to actually get someone to come and deal with you), unlike the Kweilin Street market, where you need to order.

But Yen Chow Street won’t be around for much longer. It doesn’t fit with the government’s image of 21st-century HK. I sort of understand the problem… the stalls are packed cheek by jowl, and stacked almost to the tarpaulin ceiling. If a fire were to break out while people were inside, I hate to think of the consequences.

The stallholders are being invited to move to Tung Chau Street Temporary Market – a soulless place located under a flyover, where the fabric will be sold alongside hanging, unrefrigerated meat and vegetables (and if you’ve ever been in a HK wet market, you know “that” smell). Discussions have been going on for more than a decade between officials and stallholders, but it seems that finally the government has decided to put its foot down. The stallholders are technically “hawkers”, so come under a slew of rules and regulations. The government stopped issuing new hawker licences in the 1970s, and existing licences can only be passed on under extremely stringent limitations – it basically sees hawkers as a nuisance. It is estimated that only around 20 of the Yen Chow Street hawkers have official licences – many more are unlicensed.

Update, April 2020: I wrote this story in January 2016. I’m no longer in Hong Kong, but I am told that Yen Chow Street market is still operational.

Couldn’t something be done to clean it up a bit? Restrict the number of stalls, install a proper roof and ventilation, widen the alleys? Well, Hong Kong is not very good at that sort of thing – public architecture is utilitarian at best, and often looking as if it has been designed by committee (actually, it probably is designed by a committee), and we don’t have a “people-driven” administration.

So if you want a flavour of old Sham Shui Po, get along there soon. Buy a length of silk, some bits of lace, sparkly net, leopard print, zips or ribbons, ponder between lime green and fuchsia, turquoise and lemon… or simply take your time to wander along the aisles and soak in old Hong Kong. Just do it on a dry, not-too-hot day!

3 thoughts on “Fabric of the City – Hong Kong Market Under Threat”

  1. Ann – this is very interesting. Our house in Slovenia is amazingly ‘vernacular’ since the houses there are basically machines for living in a very extreme environment – at both ends of the year! Animals in the cellars, people in the middle and hay in the roof: that, plus massive window insulation, is the design remit, and it has produced a very stereotypical type of house. In fact we’ve even got a book on the classic ‘Bovec house’!

    1. annwilliams.hk@gmail.com

      Yes, John — taking account of local climate is one of the biggest influences on vernacular architecture. And it’s something that is missing from a lot of modern domestic architecture — the current fad in HK village housing is to put in huge floor-to-ceiling windows; the glass isn’t double or triple glazed so lets the heat in (and air-con out) in summer and the cold in during winter. Developers photos of houses with sliding doors open to a deck (usually with a pool or sea just beyond), usually taken at sunset, make me laugh — just think of all those mozzies have a feast day on the house occupants!

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