Just crowned again this week as the world’s most-expensive city (along with Paris and Singapore), Hong Kong has always had the reputation of being a rich place. So it was a bit shocking to see how much the city has gentrified in the 22 years since the U.K. returned it to China – and I last visited.
Even in 1997, Hong Kong was one of the most-expensive places on the planet. But a walk down through Kownloon on Jordan Road or in Tsim Sha Tsui belied that image. I recall the sidewalks being narrow and packed shoulder to shoulder, with mom-and-pop shops lining both sides of the street, offering herbs, nuts, dried food, traditional medicines and cheap clothing and knockoffs.
Fast-forward to 2019 and they’re nearly all gone. To where, I don’t know. Out of business? Moved to the back alleys and sidestreets? In Quarry Bay, back among the “Monster” apartment buildings, you can still the “old” Hong Kong (“old” as in pre-handover), including even a sidewalk butcher.
Sure, look hard enough on Jordan Road and you’ll still find some mom-and-pop pharmacies and food shops scattered among the Swarovski and Scappino. But their wares aren’t splayed on the pavement anymore, instead racked and stacked high in insanely bright stores with colorful LED frontages.
What has replaced the family businesses are luxury brands, huge franchises and lots of LED and glittery signs. Tsim Sha Tsui now resembles High Street, Rodeo Drive, Orchard Road… Name your comparison.
While the economic boom undoubtedly has been good for the Hong Kong economy, a bit of the urban jungle’s soul has been lost in the process.
Of course, the influx of moneyed retail has been fueled by the influx of mainland Chinese tourists. Twenty times the number of mainlanders visited Hong Kong in 2017 than did 20 years earlier. The crush of “real” Chinese has, in fact, annoyed large segments of the Hong Kong population, who still (and largely justifiably) see themselves as better, or at least more cultured and mannered, than their mainland middle-class brethren.
Still, get off the main drags and you will find vestiges of the “old” Hong Kong. There are still plenty of sidewalk hawkers and – although a tourist attraction in its own right – plenty of small sellers are working nightly at the Temple Street Night Market.
My shot of the market – taken on the 4th floor of a parking garage at the end of Temple Street – has been Instagrammed about 28 gazillion times, give or take a billion. But I was there and it’s still an impressive shot, no matter how many times you see it.
It’s also great to zoom out and see the scale of the city around the “little” market.