Ripe for change? Vibrant Hong Kong fruit market faces growing challenges after 103 years
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on October 1, 2016.
The sound of rumbling fills the night air, as shirtless men with towels wrapped around their necks drag pallet jacks with stacked boxes of fruit across the road. Buyers and sellers yell at one another across stalls, surrounded by lego-like towers of boxes perched on wooden crates. Workers load their cargo into half-empty trucks parked outside the cluster of alleys.
It’s almost midnight, yet the work day is just beginning at the Yau Ma Tei Wholesale Fruit Market.
From dusk till dawn, the rustic market comes to life as thousands of boxes full of imported fruits are sold and transported to various markets, shops and stalls across the city.
From 2014 to 2015, the private market supplied 317,000 tonnes of fruit or about 47 per cent of Hong Kong’s total supply, according to an April audit report.
“The Yau Ma Tei fruit market represents our old community,” Cheung Chi-cheung, vice-chairman of the Kowloon Fruit and Vegetable Merchants Association, said.
“People in the old fruit wholesale trade were usually undereducated people with low cultural levels [who] made a living and supported their families with their physical strength. It has a very long history in Hong Kong.”
Established in 1913, the market is one of Hong Kong’s oldest and once handled nearly all of the fresh food sold on the Kowloon peninsula. Initially also selling poultry, rice and fish, it became solely a fruit market in the 1960s after the government relocated the poultry merchants and fishermen moved after the seafront underwent various reclamations.
Given a grade two heritage status by the Antiquities Advisory Board in 2009, the market now has about 250 wholesalers and covers an area of roughly 14,000 square metres.
Despite its historic value, the market has come under intense criticism in recent years, with residents complaining about environmental hygiene issues, traffic and noise pollution. It was also thrown into the public spotlight when one of its stalls caught fire earlier this month. At least 10 stalls were burnt and about 30 operators remain out of business.
From 2014 to the first half of this year, the police department received 638 complaints against the market, a spokesman said. During that period, they issued 10,858 fixed penalty tickets for traffic-related offences. Police were deploying officers and traffic wardens during peak hours to direct traffic and deter illegal parking, he added.
A government working group established to follow up on the complaints plans to hold meetings with industry leaders and officials from various departments to tackle the problem, district councillor Chung Chak-fai said. From 2007 to 2013, a total of 1,533 complaints were filed with various government departments, the audit report said.
Yet Cheung said that the market had made various improvements in recent years. Workers now finished by 7am and were using new technology such as electric jack lifts to reduce noise.
The market switched from daytime to nighttime operations starting from the 1990s as a result of changes in transportation methods, he added.
“Back then, fruits were unloaded from vessels berthed in the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter,” said Cheung, who is also the manager of wholesale outlet Dai Yik Lan.
“Now, we use containers for shipments and the cargo is dragged from Kwai Chung to here by trucks.”
To an observer, the market may seem like a place of chaos. Yet for those who make a living in the warren of alleys and stalls, there is a well-worn routine.
The containers of fruit arrive at the market from Kwai Chung at about 7pm, and workers will start to move the goods into the stores. At midnight, store operators and fruit retailers arrive, haggling to get the best deals. From 4am to about 5am, retailers begin collecting their goods. The work day finishes at about 7am.
Having lived in Yau Ma Tei all his life, Cheung started helping out with the family wholesale business when he was 15 years old. Now 63, he’s witnessed the area’s dramatic changes.
“This end of the [Waterloo] road gradually turned into a main trunk road leading to many other parts of Kowloon. This used to be the seafront here, the dead end of the road,” he recalled, gesturing around him.
“There was this big sewer in the middle of the road, where we just didn’t need to watch out for road traffic because no vehicles would come. There’s also sentiment attached to this big cluster of old buildings.”
The market remains as vibrant as ever, but its future is becoming increasingly uncertain. Fewer young people are interested in working in the industry, although entry-level workers can make a few hundred dollars a day, he said.
The government has been trying to relocate the market since about 1969, but little progress has been made as a result of logistical issues and protests from fruit traders. An area around northwest Tsing Yi is now being surveyed as a potential site, according to a Food and Health bureau spokesman.
Old-timers in the market don’t think too much about the market’s long-term prospects, Cheung said. Yet if the market were to relocate, the move would negatively affect the entire community, he added.
“We grew up here in this community where we know each other well. If we ever move away, it would be quite difficult for us to reintegrate. Many people, particularly those who are older, would be forced to retire,” Cheung said. “The Yau Ma Tei fruit market culture would perish.”