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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of shopping malls in Hong Kong

By Janice Lam 3 November 2021

Header image courtesy of Wpcpey (via Wikimedia Commons)

With an enviable reputation as “a shopper’s paradise,” Hong Kong boasts a profuse amount of shopping malls overflowing with customers every day. Whether you are looking for a designer bag or something as practical as a wire hanger, there is a dazzling array of choices awaiting in shopping malls big and small. But before you shop till you drop, let’s dive into the history of shopping malls in Hong Kong and how they came to be.

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Down the shopping lane

With a favourable geographical location in the Pearl River Delta and strong manufacturing capabilities, Hong Kong has played a significant role in international trade since its colonial days. It all started in the 1900s when regulations were put in place to manage unlicensed street hawkers, who were deemed dangerous and an inconvenience to the public. As a response to curb such vendors, the government set up numerous “hawker-permitted places” in Hong Kong, many of which evolved into the now-famed street markets. In fact, Tung Choi Street, better known as Ladies’ Market, was the first hawker-permitted area in the city.

Street markets—the unpretentious “outdoor malls” of Hong Kong—have the best bargains, from clothing and accessories to fruits, vegetables, and snacks, inviting locals and tourists to dig for treasure in the piles of goodies at each stall. Some street markets specialise in certain products, such as electronics on Apliu Street, sneakers along Fa Yuen Street, and Flower Market (guess what they sell there). At night, you can even find fortune tellers and performers in the bustling night market along Temple Street.

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Opening the gates to a shopping paradise

As economic growth boomed in the mid-twentieth century in Hong Kong, so did its material demand. In 1966, Ocean Terminal opened in Tsim Sha Tsui near Victoria Harbour, housing both the main cruise terminal in Kowloon before the launch of the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, as well as the very first shopping centre in Hong Kong. Around this time, mainland China further implemented its Open Door Policy, for which Hong Kong became an ideal export gateway. Coupled with the beginnings of the development of the Landmark in Central in the 1970s, shopping malls were clamouring for bigger and grander designs.

Under the influence of consumerism, the demand for luxury goods grew in the 1970s and 1980s, but shopping in malls was still considered extravagant back then. It was not until the development of malls near residential areas, like New Town Plaza and Cityplaza, that shopping mall culture become more popular amongst the working-class citizens of Hong Kong. Soon, more and more luxury shopping malls, including Times Square and Pacific Place, opened in the 1990s, and hanging out in such venues became commonplace in the city.

During the economic boom, department stores also came into existence, in the shape of smaller complexes that offer a slew of different products, rather than housing different stores like malls. Wing On Department Store opened in 1907 and is one of the biggest local department stores to date. Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporium is another major department store that specialises in Chinese goods. 

Japanese department stores, however, were all the rage in the 1980s—brands like Daimaru, Sogo, and Yaohan opened across Hong Kong. At its peak, Yaohan had 10 locations in town and took up a total of approximately 500,000 square feet with its outlets. Although Yaohan Hong Kong eventually closed down, the brand remained firmly embedded in Hong Kong’s shopping history and Hongkongers’ memory. Sogo and Don Don Donki, on the other hand, are still thriving and beloved by locals and tourists alike.

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A new estate of being

Other than big shopping malls and international department stores, there is another type of retail complex that is designed for practical everyday needs. Situated in private and public housing estates, estate malls play a huge part in local life. Mainly catering to residents nearby, estate malls comprise family restaurants, supermarkets, bakeries, stationery shops, boutiques, tutorial centres, and more practical businesses. While most estate malls focus on function over appearance, some of them can be extremely well-designed.

Established in 1991, the award-winning Kwong Yuen Shopping Centre is made up of a scattered formation of five short houses with red brick walls and a clock tower. It is said that this village-like design was put into place to help residents get around the hill that Kwong Yuen Estate was built on, all whilst promoting natural lighting and a better flow of ventilation through the mall. It is this thoughtful and unique design that won the building a merit award from the Hong Kong Institute of Architects in 1992.

Shaped like a ship, The Whampoa is one of the shopping malls and the mark of the private estate Whampoa Garden. There are department stores, supermarkets, a cinema, a karaoke establishment, and many more shops and restaurants in The Whampoa. Echoing its design, The Whampoa’s offerings are also more fashionable and modern.

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Fates divided

In the 1990s, subdivided shopping malls came into being. In the form of small to mid-scale shopping malls with a modest outlook in residential and commercial areas, regular shops were divided and rented out at more affordable rates to local businesses. Some commercial buildings also adopted this business format and are called “Ginza-style buildings,” as it was inspired by buildings in Ginza, Japan. Such unassuming shopping centres are a godsend to small or new businesses who cannot afford the steep rents of luxury shopping malls or ground-floor shops.

Argyle Centre and Kwai Chung Plaza are the two of the most successful subdivided malls in Hong Kong. Touted as the “commoners’ paradise” (平民天堂; ping4 man4 tin1 tong1), both are beloved for the abundance of Korean and Japanese fashion boutiques and food stalls peddling delicious and affordable snacks. Kwai Chung Plaza, in particular, is a favoured destination to “sweep up” street snacks (掃街; sou3 gaai1) and the third floor is packed with stalls selling trendy food items—sour & spicy noodlessoufflé pancakes, ice cream “mountains” (a multi-scoop tray of ice cream), just to name a few—catering to foodies looking to spend their entire afternoon there.

Dragon Centre, a landmark of Sham Shui Po, houses the subdivided Apple Mall on its fifth to seventh floors, with dozens of consignment stores and shops selling K-pop merchandise. Dragon Centre is also known for its use of cart stalls in the mall and the Sky Train, an indoor rollercoaster. Now defunct, the Sky Train used to run on top of the Sky Rink and the food court on the eighth floor until the mid-2000s, charging about above the heads of diners while the noise of the ride would ring throughout the whole mall. While the train no longer runs, the tracks and the train were never removed, and can be spotted from the rink still. It has been speculated that the site might be haunted, but that has not stopped people from returning time and time again to admire the ride’s distinctive features.

While some subdivided shopping malls have won over residents, others are not so lucky. Many of these small-scale shopping centres have become “dead malls” as tenants dry up, shrivelling into vacant husks that have become almost invisible to passers-by. However, the forlornness of such abandoned malls often attracts photographers and filmmakers. For instance, the 1998 Hong Kong apocalyptic cult film Bio-Zombie (生化壽司; saang1 faa3 sau6 si1) was shot in North Point’s New Trend Plaza, which is still home to a handful of small businesses such as tutoring schools, Chinese medicine clinics, and employment agencies, but otherwise abandoned.

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Back from the dead

Although the future of dead malls seems bleak, there is still hope. Fu Lee Loy Shopping Centre in Fortress Hill has recently been revived by a local citizen, who turned the previously abandoned mall into a niche shopping centre filled with small, hipster shops. Although only a handful of shops have been occupied, the evocative visuals of the dead mall—boarded-up shopfronts, peeling signs, an absurd amount of pails laid across the floor to catch drips from vents—bring photographers and artists to Fu Lee Loy so as to capture the artistic desolation of this mall.

After the manufacturing industry moved out of Hong Kong in the late 1900s, many industrial buildings were left untenanted. Rather than letting them go into disrepair, the Revitalisation of Industrial Buildings policy was introduced in 2010 to facilitate their conversion into units for retail and community use. 

Despite the inconvenient locations, the large studios and low rents have enticed many smaller businesses to set up shop there. In Kwun Tong, one of Hong Kong’s main manufacturing hubs, the industrial buildings are inhabited by small boutiques and restaurants. Camel Paint Building is probably the most famous example of an industrial-building-turned-shopping-mall, favoured by youngsters over glitzier neighbours like APM mall.

Many historical buildings in Hong Kong are also preserved by turning the sites into commercial centres while preserving the façade. The Marine Police Headquarters compound in Tsim Sha Tsui, for one, is now the retail complex and hotel known as 1881 Heritage. Indoor wet markets Western Market and the recently revamped Central Market have both been turned into stylish shopping hubs with boutique trend-led stores.

Cultural commercial centres Tai Kwun and PMQ have their heritage and history celebrated in its new iteration. While there has been criticism regarding the level of preservation, these projects have brought about renewed interest in visiting historical monuments in the city, as well as raising awareness for other conservation initiatives.

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An artistic future

Hong Kong’s retail sector seems to be on a pursuit of artistry and culture in recent years. Shops are putting heavy emphasis on visual aesthetics, carefully curating the interiors of the shop space as well as their products. K11 Musea, an embodiment of this new direction, houses luxurious brands in its seven-storey building, and displays pieces by local artists throughout the complex. It also hosts exhibitions and bazaars with art and culture offerings. K11 Art Mall also frequently invites local brands for pop-up opportunities. Fu Lee Loy Shopping Centre has also been inviting local artists to exhibit their works, while also serving as inspiration for new pieces.

Hong Kong’s retail scene has been able to evolve and adapt to changes in society, serving the needs of the population in more ways than one. With so many new things popping up at all times, it is no wonder Hong Kong is considered to be a shopping paradise for both locals and visitors alike.

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Janice Lam

Former editorial intern

A passionate writer, a curious learner, a pineapple enthusiast—these are just some of the identities Janice has taken up. In her free time, you can usually find her in her room obsessing over a new show, making a new playlist, or getting lost in her thoughts. When she’s in the mood, she can spend an entire day walking around a neighbourhood, searching for inspiration and food.

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