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Backing up hawkers with new stalls giving a fresh look at Graham Market after fire

It was early morning on the 15th of August. Stall owners at Graham Market, Central had already closed their shops. Just at this quiet moment, a fire broke out. Raging flames burned up a row of stalls, ripping through the quietness of the night.

Uncle Man, one of the stall owners who has sold fruit at Graham Market for 30 years, recalled the fire as his fear still lingered, “It was about 2 o’clock in the morning, the market’s night watchman phoned me to say my stall was on fire. I was stunned and then jumped in a taxi to rush back to the market, arriving only to see all the metal sheets covering my stall were burnt and bent. It looked like a bomb had just gone off. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

The fire at Graham Market destroyed six stalls and damaged two others. Among them, three stalls belonged to Uncle Man from where he sold fruit. “When the fire turned my three stalls to dust, at that moment, I felt as if I had reached life’s bottom. My heart just felt so bad,” he sighed with a heavy heart. That night, he didn’t go home and instead stayed on the street waiting for the report from the police and fire services.

Ms Liu’s vegetable stall, which was standing next to Uncle Man’s at the market, was also wiped out by the fire. As soon as she was told the awful news, she immediately rushed back to Hong Kong from the mainland. By the time she got to the market, it was already late in the evening and the site had been cleaned up. “There was nothing there, except the burnt structure of my stall which had not been taken down. The things that I kept in the stall, like the weighing scales, the strainers, onions, garlic, were all turned into ashes,” Liu remembered.

URA photo 2A number of hawker stalls at Graham Market were severely damaged by the fire last August.

The century-old Graham Market, although located adjacent to the URA’s Peel Street/Grantham Street Development Scheme (H18), does not fall within the boundary of the redevelopment site. Nevertheless, members of the URA team who take part in the project have built up close relationships with the stalls owners for nearly 10 years. Glory Wong, the URA’s Planning and Design Manager, has been working side-by-side with the vendors there in preserving the community’s characteristics and revitalising the market. “The fire had a big impact on the stall owners. That morning, we immediately went to the site to visit the affected storekeepers. With their stores destroyed, they could not run their business. They were in despair and desperate need for immediate assistance,” Glory recalled.

To help vendors rebuild their livelihood, the URA decided to provide financial assistance to the affected owners to repair and rebuild their stalls as well as reconnect electricity, so that they could resume business as quick as possible. The next day, the URA along with relevant government departments including the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and the Central and Western District Office of the Home Affairs Department, met the affected stall owners to explain the application procedures for the financial assistance. The URA hoped that through such collaborative effort, the stall owners could quickly get through the difficult times.

The timely assistance from the URA has touched Uncle Man deeply since he no longer had to worry about the considerable expense on reconstructing his stalls. “I phoned Glory that morning after the fire, and he soon called back in the afternoon saying the URA could sponsor us to rebuild our stalls. He even gave me words of comfort that they would promptly look into ways to help us. At that moment I felt that there were people in this world who cared. In fact many people in the neighbourhood have offered help afterwards. There is kindness in this community,” Uncle Man said.

There was a period when the affected owners could operate at their original space temporarily, each with one big umbrella to shelter them from the hot sun. However as the temporary setups had to be dismantled every night, and since there was no electricity supply, Liu said she had to spend double effort and time on setting up and dismantling. As there was also no place for storage, she was forced to keep less vegetables, thereby affecting her business and income.

Having seen that there was no lighting at the temporary setups, which made stock handling difficult for the stall owners, the URA team made a thoughtful purchase of some portable lights for the owners. “We are closely monitoring the progress of re-establishing the stalls. We hope that by assisting owners in setting up new stalls as soon as possible, they could resume normal business quickly,” Glory said. By the end of October, the contractor had completed reconstructing the six severely damaged stalls. The other two slightly damaged stalls were also rebuilt in mid-November.

URA photo 3The six severely damaged stalls had been completed reconstructing by the end of October.

The “rebirth” of his stalls and business has brought Uncle Man much happiness. “Now I feel so much relieved! At last I don’t have to do setting up and dismantle each day, not to mention having to endure the sunlight and the rain. I can now keep my paper containers, weighing scales and strainers inside the stalls, making it much more convenient at opening and closing times.” With a broad smile, Ms Liu said, “Now that I can resume normal business, I feel so much happier! I can now order more popular stock like purple potatoes from the US, sweet potatoes from Japan, pumpkins from Australia and put them for sale.”

The URA hasn’t just rebuilt the hawker stalls, but also given them new looks by furbishing them with new colours of the hawkers’ choices. Some of them have their exterior painted in dark green while the interior are in blue green. Other stalls are coated with yellow paint making refreshing new looks. There are other ways to enliven the market too, for example by installing signboards, price tags and patterned stickers tailor-made for each stall to highlight their features and boost their attractiveness.

URA photo 1The URA has given the hawker stalls new looks by furbishing them with tailor-made decorations to highlight their features.​

Uncle Man has a fondness for ‘green’, thinking it would go very well with the myriad colours of his fresh fruit, alongside the brand new “Man Kee Fruit” signboard which has a cartoon image of himself against a background drawing of bright yellow pitahayas. Ms Liu was also excited about her new stalls newly decorated in her favourite colour of yellow, “It is really eye-catching, and it also makes people feel happy. There’s vitality in yellow just like my pleasant personality.”

URA photo 4Signboards and patterned stickers tailor-made for the stalls help highlight their features and boost their attractiveness.

URA photo 5Standing in front of her new stall decorated in yellow, Ms Liu says the vitality and cheerfulness of the colour resemble her pleasant personality.

Apart from splashing colours to the new stalls, the URA went a bit further on the safety front. “We have installed smoke alarm sensors in the stalls and taught each owner how to use. We hope to improve the safety of hawker stalls and raise the fire awareness of the owners,” said Glory.

To Uncle Man, it was really a pleasant and touching surprise that the URA team has gone the extra mile to do up the new stalls and even add fire safety facilities. “After my stalls were destroyed by the fire, I was just bewildered. I even lost a few pounds in weight due to the worry. But in the last two months, with the care from and actions taken by the URA, I felt entirely at ease. The team had paid close attention to restoring the new stalls, and was always concerned about us throughout the process. I just feel so blessed,” Uncle Man said with a warm smile.