Sanitising Central Market
An early history of Hong Kong’s Government Market No.1
潔淨中環街市 / 政府一號街市的早期歷史
Bill So 蘇陽彪 / Thomas Chung 鍾宏亮
A new colony needs a market
The idea for Central Market appears to have originated back in June 1841 at Hong Kong’s first ever land sales, when certain lots were reserved for “Government purposes”.¹ The Treaty of Nanking (1842) had not been signed and Henry Pottinger, Hong Kong’s first Governor, was only on his way to China. The decision for the Crown colony-to-be’s first public market to occupy a Marine Lot seemed primarily based on transportation and logistics. Direct access to the harbour meant fresh goods could be brought by boat daily. On Pottinger’s 1842 map, a “Fish, meat & Poultry Bazar” occupied Lots 11 & 12 (fig 2a), waterfront plots in the heart of the City of Victoria and immediately north of the Upper Bazaar, the small area around present day Graham and Stanley Streets already granted to Chinese tradesmen.
Although site works were complicated by its coastal location and buildings were still mostly temporary, the first-generation market was described in the Government Gazette of 12 May 1842 as “Hong Kong Market Place”, whereby “(t)he whole has been judiciously arranged into separate and well-constructed departments”. The different departments included stalls “1st for all kinds of Meat; 2nd fruit and vegetables; 3rd Poultry; 4th Salt Fish; 5th Fresh Fish; 6th Weighing rooms, 7th Money Changers house” as well as ones selling “Fowls, Cake, tea, and Cook shops”,² those “cook shops” possibly being the earliest regulated cooked food eateries in Hong Kong.
From Gordon’s 1843 map (fig 2b), one can identify the market’s bounded enclosure with a centrally-located south-facing main entrance off Queen’s Road. Once inside there were two rectangular buildings each on both sides off the entrance’s central axis. One can speculate that the four types of goods were “judiciously arranged” in those buildings. Going further in, the squarish building with a colonnaded frontage seemed more “well-constructed” and could be where the superintendent’s office was, together with rooms for the weighing and money changer. On the western edge, a larger columnated rectangular building closer to the sea could well have been a covered market for “Fresh Fish”. The remaining open space correlates to the area reserved for the market’s future expansion.³
With its waterfront advantage, the new market’s proximity to the privately owned Upper Bazaar further inland was arguably a question of convenience, building on the Chinese vendors already established on the sloping Graham and Peel Streets. The other two private markets on the island facing Queen’s Road Central, Morgans Bazar and Canton Bazar, had also become landlocked due to reclamation and road construction.
By 1845, the market was officially recognized as “Government Market No.1” (fig 2c). Importing the majority of its goods from mainland China, the market served all of the island’s inhabitants, Western and native. After the market opened, all street hawkers were banned. Vendors were instead encouraged to rent market stalls that were managed by a superintendent. The completion of this public market not only helped to meet the needs of the nascent colony’s rising population, the colonial administration’s aim was also to use it as a model of public health and regulated operation.
Development and densification
From the start, the administration saw the market as a good source of income and entrusted superintendency to Chinese merchants. By 1844, the market had become franchised to the highest bidder who was then free to charge stall tenants. Although there were management irregularities and bribery scandals coupled with government dissatisfaction, the market continued to be leased to private operators until 1856. As Hong Kong developed rapidly as an entrepot, its population increased five-fold by 1851. This led to burgeoning demands on the market’s operation, and together with the aging and overloading of its buildings, as well as increasingly complicated transactions, monetary wrangling and corruption, the government took back the lease around 1856 and spent a year of re-planning and reconstruction. The second-generation market eventually reopened to the public in October 1857.
From a 1865 map, the reconstructed market could be seen marked as Lot 31 (fig 2d). There appeared to be nine evenly distributed elongated lightwells within densely built mass filling the entire lot(pink), while the diagonally hatched block indicated a harbourside frontage. In addition to a designated loading pier, the straightened road access on the praya side had been completed. Also noteworthy was that the lot was now only accessible from Queen’s Road and the praya, while the two long east and west edges were filled with buildings. This formed Central’s largest built urban block at the time, with Pottinger Street on the east and Wing Wo Street on the west – the street names reflecting the market’s location between the Western and Chinese quarters. A 1875 panorama illustration of the same year from The Graphic depicted the market’s harbourside elevation in detail, showing 3-4 storey colonnaded Chinese rowhouses with deep verandahs (fig 4, bottom). On a 1887 map, four inner streets or alleys could be identified. From east to west, they were Webster Bazaar, Eastern Avenue, Centre Avenue and Western Avenue (fig 6).
While such depictions of the market’s densification reflected the district’s urban development, the market’s own deteriorating conditions due to poor construction, improper usage and general dilapidation led to repeated calls for improvements beyond repeated “whitewashing or incremental repairs. By 1887, outcries in local media included calling the market as a “standing disgrace to any British colony”, condemning it as the “Shame of Victoria City”, to listing out its problems such as the market stalls being occupied as dwellings, where “twelve hundred or upwards sleep nightly where … food is handled and sold”.⁴ Bold redevelopment proposals ranged from building a new market using Crystal Palace-inspired technology of prefabricated cast iron frame with a glass roof to be assembled in “a few months”, to a phased revamp to enable the market’s continuing operation as a “Temporary Central Market” throughout reconstruction, as well as auctioning off its existing lot to anticipate buying the adjacent soon-to-be Marine Lot created from the planned reclamation to maintain its essential seafront connection.
In fact, the first record of a reconstruction plan dated back to 1883, the same year the colony’s Sanitary Board was established. In June that year, the Board urgently called for reconstructing the market “at once”, implying that it had become a hygiene black spot. More importantly, since the market lot had been filled up with built structures and hemmed in on all sides, the official view was that such problems could only be effectively controlled with wholesale clearance ensure adequate urban ventilation. “No new design for a market will be successful from a Sanitary point of view unless these houses are cleared out of the way and the full width of the market premises thrown open to the breeze on the Queen’s Road frontage as well as the Praya side.” ⁵
Resumption and rebranding
Begun in 1883, the resumption of the market’s adjacent lots ensued “in order to enable a square or rectangular shaped Market to be built instead of a wedge shaped structure, and also in order to admit of the construction of a public street from the Queen’s Road to the Praya on each side of the proposed new building.” ⁶ Marine Lot 18 was purchased from P&O to straighten the market’s wedge-shaped lot. New 35-feet wide streets were established on either side, adding great accessibility and openness for the new market design. After eight years of design and construction, the third-generation Central Street market opened on 1st May 1895 (figs 5 & 6).
The 3rd-generation Central Market filled the entire lot. A north-south central avenue marked by towers at both ends was flanked by two 2-storey blocks (fig 1). Red brick walls with granite dressings for pilasters and archways unified the exterior, while concrete floors and prefabricated iron structural components shipped from the United Kingdom created wide interior aisles. Together with electric lighting installed, this piece of grand architecture with imported Victorian motifs was “commodious, freely ventilated, strongly built, and …(a) walk through the place when business was brisk did not disclose any obnoxious smells…”.⁷ The new public market certainly became a pioneering prototype that mobilised architecture and urban reconfiguration to promote sanitation and city image.
After four decades of constant usage, calls for rebuilding the Central Market were heard again in late 1936. Three years later in 1939, again on May 1st, the current 4th-generation Central Market re-opened on the same site. Familiar to us as a local exemplar of Bauhaus-inspired modernism, this pre-war experimental architecture and urban landmark, designed with offices and living quarters for a hygiene inspector on the roof level, was again employed as the vehicle to embody the latest ideals of public health and market operations, and with it another sanitising rebranding of colonial governance that continued to flourish in Hong Kong’s post-war modernisation.
Bill So obtained his Master of Architecture with distinction at the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture, and is a registered architect currently working in Hong Kong.
Thomas Chung is Associate Professor at the School of Architecture, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
¹ Dafydd Emrys Evans (1972) “The origins of Hong Kong’s Central Market and The Tarrant Affair”. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, vol. 12, pp150-160.
² From The Friend of Hong Kong and China Gazette,12th May 1842.
³ In George Malcolm’s (later Colonial Secretary) letter to Henry Pottinger dated 10 June 1842. From Select Committee Report on China, pp375-6.
⁴ Letters to local newspaper from Legislative Council member Hon AP MacEwen published on 12 October 1886 in Hong Kong Daily Press, and also on 10 November 1887 in The China Mail.
⁵ CO129/210, p179 dated 16th June 1883, UK National Archives.
⁶ CO129/231, p495 dated 15th February 1887, Report of proceedings of the Finance Committee Special Meeting, UK National Archives.
⁷ Report in The Hong Kong Weekly Press on 9th May 1895, four days after the 3rd generation Central Market’s official opening.
(Image copyright: Keystone View Company)
Fig.2a Pottinger’s Map of Hong Kong, 1842
(UK National Archives: FO925/2427)
Fig.2b Gordon’s Map of Hong Kong, 1843
(UK National Archives: FO925/2387)
Fig.2c Map of Victoria, Hong Kong, 1845-1846
(UK National Archives: WO 78/479, courtesy of Gwulo.com)
Fig.2d City of Victoria, 1865
(UK National Archives: CO700)
Fig.3 Victoria West and P. & O. Hong, George Chinnery, 1851. A rare harbour view of Central Market showing the P&O flag, thus locating its office and confirming the buildings east of it as those of the 1st generation Central Market.
Fig.4 Plan of market (top) matching panorama harbourview (bottom) showing Praya elevation with the 16 bays of “Chinese Hongs” highlighted in yellow (elevation analysis by author).
Fig.5 Diagrams showing land lot reconfiguration for 3rd generation market (before and after).
Fig.6 1887 map showing land lot transformation, Public Records Office, HKSAR (highlights by author)