A seller of watches sits within a street stall cabinet. There are displays of watches and watch batteries on sale.
©Wendy Gan 2024

Hong Kong's Street Market Stalls

Wendy Gan

I have always been drawn to street markets, especially the ones where the neighbourhood residents come to do their daily shopping. Such markets are humble places, the domain of the small business owner who does everything from selecting and displaying merchandise to hawking it. The goods they sell are myriad, but everything is priced with an eye to their shrewd, blue-collar clientele. 

In Hong Kong, street markets of this kind are controlled by the government. Each stall is allotted a space and a metal cabinet of uniform size for storage and the conducting of business. I've long found fascinating how stall owners use their given space because, though the cabinets they receive are standard issue, each one is nonetheless unique.

They come in different colours and, over time, each owner adds their individual touch—a Chinese couplet that announces good fortune, a stencil by a graffiti artist, a metal cupboard on the side in the same shade of green to make it blend in, additional folding tables, trolleys, boxes, stools. It looks like a mess, but there is a kind of order to the madness. 

A closed street stall cabinet painted in purple with boxes  stacked in front of it and a red stool titled at an angle.
©Wendy Gan 2024

And this is only when the stalls are shuttered. When open for business, the cabinets transform into remarkable shops. Panels fold down to become display space. Rods are attached to the roof to form hanging racks. The inside of a panel is hung with a metal grid and dotted with hooks that hold plastic bags of varying sizes for customers. Every inch of space is utilised with an admirable ingenuity.  

There is nothing chic or sophisticated here, but these stalls have a great deal of character and they speak of a working-class flair for making things work in spite of the constraints of government rules and the lack of funds. I find them expressive of a dogged and creative human spirit, and often feel strangely moved when I walk through a street market. Hong Kong has numerous glamorous, climate-controlled malls that offer congenial environments for window shopping, but the street market, open to the elements, has far more personality and verve. This is where you sense Hong Kong’s earthy resilience. It is in the practical vernacular design of everyday life that you find the spirit of a people.