2nd September 2013
Government to Turn Western Market into Wine Cellar
The Urban Renewal Authority (URA) intents to transform Western Market, a heritage witnesses the change of Central and Sheung Wan area, into a high-end wine cellar, according to source. The future use of the building will undergo consultation in the near future. The Development Bureau also plans to include Western Market into the next phrase of the Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme. The 18 fabric retailers who were promised to be settled down in Western Market could face the fate of being forced to move out.
Completed in 1906, Western Market is a British Edwardian Style architecture. Using mainly red bricks and granite in its core structure, Western Market enjoys the longest history amongst all markets in Hong Kong. In 1991, the then Hong Kong Government had Land Development Corporation Managing Board (which was later replaced by URA) to manage Western Market, which was transformed into a centre for traditional trades and arts and crafts. The retailers on Wing On Street, also known as Fabric Street, who were affected by the redevelopment project, were arranged to be resettled in the market to continue their businesses. Since they moved in, Western Market took over the nickname as Fabric Street.
Development Bureau granted the URA the rights to manage Western Market for three more years. The URA immediately lure the Fabric Street retailers to renew their contracts for three years, but the offers were turned down by the shop owners. Mr Au, who’s been running his fabric retailing business for almost 50 years, said that the conditions in the contracts were unreasonable, “it was specified in the contracts that when the lease is up, the retailers should move out without re-installing the shop. We were resettled here, it is unreasonable for them to kick us out. The people here argued with them (URA) and decided not to sign those contracts.” He also claimed that the shop owners still hold the letters issued by Abraham Razack, President of the Land Development Corporation Managing Board, to prove that the fabric retailers at Western Market were all resettled there.
According to source, the URA has already commissioned a consultancy to conduct a large scale inspection of the building which will be completed as soon as the beginning of 2014. The initial inspection shows that the building’s overall structure is in good condition, but due to its age, the building does not meet the Buildings Ordinance’s requirements, for example, the absence of elevator and barrier-free access.
The source also said that once the inspection is completed, Western Market will be renovated. Shops and restaurants in the market will undoubtedly be forced to close, and the retailers operating in Fabric Street will be forced to leave. The source said, “The URA thinks that the shops in the market are all over the place, some sell antiques, some sell fabrics, and there are restaurants too! The URA wants the market to be more unified and high-end. One of their considerations is to convert the market into a wine cellar, with the ground floor for wine tasting, and the upper floor for banquets, and all are for high-end consumption.” The source also said that the renovation of Western Market will require substantial funding, and the Development Bureau is interested in including the market in its next phrase of the Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme, and invite non-profit organsations to operate.
■There are over 5,000 types of fabrics at Mr Au’s shop, some of them are uniquely available at his shop
■David Wilson, a former Govenor of Hong Kong visited the retailers and greeted by Mr Au in 1991 after the shops were resettled
Western Market underwent renovation in 2003. The URA allotted the market’s management and operation to The Lifestyle Group. George Wong Fuk-wah, Managing Director of the Group, said the contract states that the Group will be responsible for all the maintenance and management of the market. It costs approximately US$900,000 to operate the building every year, “Western Market is a heritage building and is very close to the harbour, regular maintenance and air conditioning could cost between US$650,000 and US$770,000 a year. However, two years after we started operating the market, we began to make a profit.”
George Wong said that the Fabric Street attracts a lot of tourists and many of the retailers there have been operating for over 50 years, “many of the fabric shop owner are in their 70s and 80s, but they still open their shops every day. Many would question why would they carry on doing their trade given that they could only make small money. If this is all people care about, Hong Kong will become a stony-hearted city. The most important thing is that they have found their own space, and happy to make a small living by inheriting a half a century old trade.” Wong thinks that if the URA must consider Western Market’s renovation plan very carefully, “if there are better ways to utilise the market, we will of course respect it. It all depends on what the government wants. Unless they want to make more money out of heritages (there is no need to renovate the market). If they are not just aiming at money, is there really a need (to renovate)?”
The URA has been using the excuse of conservation heritages and revitalised a number of heritage buildings and converted them into commercial use. Wo Cheong Pawn Shop (now it’s a bar and restaurant) and Wan Chai Market, for example, everything has changed beyond recognition. Western Market is now facing the threat of “being conserved”, many worry that the traditional characters of the fabric trade could be removed.
A spokesperson of the URA said that Western Market is still undergoing a comprehensive inspection. After the inspection report is released, the Authority will discuss with the government about the future use of the market and the arrangements for retailers. No final decision is made so far and there is no plan to evacuate the shops in the market at this stage.