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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of Central Market

By Celia Lee 18 August 2023

Header image courtesy of Central Market

Anyone who has ever walked along Queen’s Road Central will surely have noticed one peculiar building along the way. Streamlined and pale-coloured, this four-storey structure stands out amongst the business high-rises of Queen’s Road, Des Voeux Road, Queen Victoria Street, and Jubilee Street. With a black “Central Market” sign on its façade, this Grade III historic building has stood the test of time since its establishment in colonial Hong Kong.

Although its location has changed three times, and the twentieth-century wet market has long vacated the current premises, its iconic frontage remains intact. More importantly, the building was recently transformed into a vibrant retail-tainment, dining, and cultural hub and preserved.

Join us as we take a stroll through the hidden history of Central Market, its establishment, and evolution from the first wet market in Hong Kong to an iconic landmark in the heart of Central.

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A close-up of a map of City of Victoria, Hong Kong in 1866 with Central Market circled. Photo: William Frederick Mayers, NB Dennys, Charles King

In operation since day one

The history of Central Market began all the way back in 1842, right after the establishment of colonial Hong Kong. Soon after the British took ownership of Hong Kong Island, ports were set up for trade along the coast, from present-day Kennedy Town all the way to Admiralty.

Central Market has been documented in various maps charted by the British since 1842, but it first came into existence with a different name. Originally referred to as Canton Bazaar, the market was located between Cochrane Street and Graham Street, opposite its present location.

If you are wondering why this maritime trade port was set up so far inland, it is important to keep in mind that the coastline of Hong Kong Island was only two streets away from Queen’s Road during colonial times, before land reclamation. The various trade centres were set up as close to Victoria Harbour as possible in order to make exchanges easier for merchants arriving by boat.

Four generations of history

With almost two centuries of history under its belt, not only has Central Market witnessed the constant evolution of Hong Kong since colonial times, it has also changed with it. The first few years of its establishment were particularly rocky, with Canton Bazaar’s relocation from Cochrane Street and Graham Street to where the present-day High Court can be found.

This move is documented in many maps, particularly in a “Plan of Hong Kong” dated 1842, drawn by Sir Henry Pottinger, the first governor of the crown colony. The map shows the second iteration of Central Market marked as “Canton Bazaar” along the coast of present-day Admiralty.

Left: Stairs to Central Market’s entrance from Queen’s Road Central. Right: Entrance to Central Market from Queen’s Road Central. Photos: Cheng Po Hung

How did the market get to where it is today, you may wonder? It has been speculated that two factors motivated the move from Admiralty back to Central. Firstly, as the colony rapidly developed in the first decade of its existence, areas along the coastline were soon dedicated to a specific use. The coast of Admiralty was quickly assigned as the Royal Battery with barracks for the British Navy further inland, while the coast along Sheung Wan and Central became assigned as the Market Bank.

Naturally, this called for a change of scenery for the Canton Bazaar, motivated by another event occurring in the late 1850s. As the Qing dynasty battled against the Taiping Rebellion, colonial Hong Kong saw an influx of Chinese artisans and merchants fleeing from the chaos unfolding north of the British colony. The colonial government considered this influx of merchants—who offered enchanting goods of chinoiserie fit for trade along the coast of Market Bank—and Canton Bazaar was promptly relocated to its current location in Central, where it was renamed Central Market.

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The third generation of Central Market was completely revamped, architecturally. This version of the market was made up of two Victorian-style two-storey blocks separated by a central avenue that ran in-between them—a structure starting to resemble the layout of Central Market today.

The Bauhaus-style building we are all familiar with was built in 1939. To expand and modernise Central Market, architects designed a new façade with slim horizontal lines to characterise functionalism. Two floors were added to the original structure, and the central avenue was repurposed into an atrium. Each floor housed various market stalls, complete with specialised equipment made for different products, a feature that remains preserved today.

Central Market’s name plaque during the Japanese Occupation. Photo: Ceeseven (via Wikimedia Commons)

A short-lived alias

The establishment that first went by Canton Bazaar was renamed Central Market (中環街市; zung1 waan4 gaai1 si5) once it was relocated to its present location in the 1850s. “中環” represents how the district had always been referred to by locals during the British occupation, whilst “街市” is the colloquial way of referring to wet markets by locals to this day.

However, during the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong, there was a slight change in the Chinese appellation for the market, from “中環街市” to “中央市場” (zung1 joeng1 si5 coeng4). Both “中環” and “中央” can be translated into “central” and both “街市” and “市場” mean “market,” but the original Chinese name was not restored on the façade of the building until 1993, despite it being unofficially in use all throughout the Japanese Occupation and beyond.

View of Central Market from Queen’s Road Central, with elevated pathway to the Mid-Levels Escalator System pictured to the left. Photo: Cheng Po Hung

Here come the escalators

Hongkongers in Central are accustomed to the Central-Mid-Levels escalator and how it passes through the second storey of Central Market. To render this connection possible, the side of the building facing Des Voeux Road Central was temporarily demolished in 1989 to make way for the escalators. Although this project permanently altered the look of Central Market from the outside, the demolition allowed improvements within the building itself.

It was documented that escalators and lifts were added to the market, together with public toilets, while the main staircase received a well-deserved facelift after being in use for so many years. With the introduction of modern supermarkets, the wet market saw a decline in shoppers. Some food stalls were removed to make room for retail spaces. In 1994, further alterations meant part of the building was converted to form the Central Escalator Link Alley Shopping Arcade, with the starting point of the Central-Mid-Levels escalator system located at the end of this retail area.

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Central Market with its doors closed in 2008, view from Queen’s Road Central. Photo: Busv 9153 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The end of an era

Although wet markets remain an important part of life for many locals in Hong Kong today, the city was undergoing epochal change at the end of the twentieth century that dramatically altered the retail habits of many city dwellers. The introduction of supermarkets in the late 1900s emptied many local markets that once sustained life in the neighbourhoods.

Especially for Central Market, its closure in 2003 was preceded by major changes to the Central District as early as 1999. The development of commercial buildings in the area surrounding Queen’s Road and its major arteries saw the movement of residential buildings out of the soon-to-be central business district (CBD) into the Mid-Levels—a layout familiar to us today.

This shift in the district plan meant increased distance between homes and Central Market, an added inconvenience that drove many of its visitors away to grocery stores closer to their homes in the Mid-Levels. The reducing number of foot traffic to Central Market had left the once bustling bazar underutilised and finally, the Market closed its doors in 2003, remaining only as a linkage between the Central CBD and the Mid-Levels escalator system.

Central Market entrance from Queen Victoria Street. Photo: Central Market

A new beginning

Left abandoned and unused for six years, Central Market was eventually handed over to the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) in 2009 for conservation and revitalisation. Instead of simply revitalising the building into a fifth iteration of its former self, the URA, together with the appointed project partner Chinachem Group, opted for a different strategy that works to keep the market relevant.

Eschewing rigid boundaries between retail, entertainment, education, cultural appreciation, and dining, the Central Market Revitalisation Project follows a guideline that connects the different businesses in a free-flowing way within the Bauhaus-style building, a direction that also speaks to the founding use of Canton Bazaar.

Sometimes labelled “Central Market—A Playground for All,” inside the market today, you will find Hong Kong traditional food alongside innovative, contemporary dining concepts; retail areas that offer seasonal and local products alongside imported goods; spaces for relaxation and congregation as well as flexible venues for entertainment, education, and seasonal programmes.

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Developers of the revitalisation project aim for this fifth generation of Central Market to be “a space that changes and develops over time [to reflect] the evolving desires and interests of its diverse users.” Much like the Canton Bazaar in 1842, Central Market has once again become a congregating place for people from all walks of life to gather and mingle, against a backdrop where contemporary curios from local areas and beyond are traded and exchanged.

While there currently are no official indicators valuing the success of a conservation project, it is clear that the market’s revitalisation was completed with merit. Whether you are a frequent visitor of its retail corners, dining spots, and entertainment spaces, or simply a passer-by who utilises the market’s linkage to the Central-Mid-Levels escalators, Central Market remains relevant to your daily life. Relevancy, after all, is the most important factor in keeping a historical monument alive in contemporary thought, and for years to come.

Central Market, 93 Queen’s Road Central, Central

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.