The century-old market goes on with new generations
"I have been operating in the Graham Market for over 30 years and have witnessed the introduction of many new elements in the market in the past decades. Just recently, a new Market Block opened last month where I have this new shop selling more new products from different origins. These Dutch tomatoes are sourced by my sons, which are one of the popular selling items here. People say eating a few of these tomatoes a day can have the benefits of anti-oxidant." said May Ng ("Madam Wah"), the owner of the Wah Kee fruit and vegetable shop. While she is busy organising a wide range of merchandise at the new shop and adding in English tag to each of hte products, she continued, "We have to go with the times. There are a lot of foreigners making patronage in this market and we need to add the English product tags to help them better understand our products. My English is not good, so I have to rely on my two sons to handle the sale and purchase with the foreigners."
Madam Wah's elder son, Mango, and younger son, Anson, are the successors of Wah Kee. In their early thirties, they decided to give up the "white-collar" jobs with stable income for the fruit and vegetable business founded by their parents. Anson said, "People often ask me why I join the market business in this young age. In fact, there are many young people running business here with their parents. The new generation contributes many new ideas to the businesses here." The two brothers run the business in partnership, with Mango responsible for the finance, personnel and operation matters while Anson handling the sales, marketing and customer relations.
Madam Wah and her husband, Uncle Wah are the founder of Wah Kee. Like many other shop operators in Graham Market, they inherited the family business and have been running it for decades. "My parents-in-law had been selling vegetables like ginger, melon, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and broccoli in the market. My husband and I took over the business later and expanded the product range to some more popular vegetables like water spinach." Madam Wah said with a smile and expressed her passion towards the market. She continued, "My first shop here was at No. 23 Graham Street, which was operated for decades and brought me invaluable friendship with many customers. I have had enjoyable time with the kaifongs though the work is tough as we need to get up as early as 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning."
In 2007, the URA commenced the Peel Street/ Graham Street development scheme, in which Madam Wah's shop was situated. Outside the project site, there is a century-old market. Madam Wah was worried that she had to leave this neighbourhood where she did business over a decade.
"At that time, I was concerned that I could not find a replacement shop in the vicinity, and I might not be able to afford a higher rent." Madam Wah said she has already made a lot of good friends in the Graham Maraket and did not want to move to another place for business.
"I have prepared for the worst that I may need to close the business if I cannot find a suitable replacement shop," said Madam Wah. "Fortunately, the URA staff not only explained to us the details and arrangements of the redevelopment project, they also showed great care to our needs. We talked to them to express our worries and hoped they could arrange the operators to continue business in the market."
In order to sustain the Graham Market, the URA built a new Market Block in the Peel Street/ Graham Street development scheme to accommodate those fresh food shop owners who chose to continue their business in the project site. The work of the project has been conducted in phases, allowing the operatores to continue their business before moving into the new Market Block. "I am grateful for the URA's assistsance by arranging a temporary shop for my business at Peel Street."
Madam Wah spent three years in the temporary shop and then moved to another shop at Gage Street. During these years, she has been in close communication with hte URA. "The URA staff explained to us clearly about the relocation arrangements to the new Market Block, where I have bid two new shops. I always tell the kaifongs that we are lucky to be able to continue our business here. In other cases, those people affected by redevelopment may not be able to get any compensation or relocation arrangements."
Madam Wah is satisfied with the new shop. "Before moving in, the URA staff had many discussions with us and listened to our views about the new shops. They made models of the new shops to help us better understand the setting and how the shops will look like after completion of work. Now, I find my new shops really beautiful, bright and with toilet. I can just move in without doing any renovation." Madam Wah also pointed out that the new shop is just located opposite to the existing one, where the customers can easily find. Besides, the new shop is facing the busy Gage Steet with high traffice flow, which helps to bring more new customers to her shop.
"Now the pedestrian walkway has been widened, making the market more convenient for the public. the nearby escalator also brings many new customers, including foreigners, hotel chefs, celebrity artists and even those loyal customers from the New Territories. There are many new elements in the Graham Market like new shops, new merchandise and more young people joining the businesses here. Just like the butcher next to my shop, its successor and assistants are all young ladies." said Madam Wah.
Having witnessed the "young" transformation of the market, Madam Wah also has plans to retire. Now, she has gradually handed over the business to her two sons. When asked if she has given her sons more business tips, Madam Wah said with a smile, "My sons are smarter than me. They always pay attention to the food trend and introduce new products to our shop, like kale, the popular super food that has high nutritional value. They are also able to make use of the Internet for business to increase the overall operation efficiency." When asked about her plan after retirement, Madam Wah said, "I wish to travel abroad to see the world." With the help of two capable sons, it seems that Madam Wah's dream will sooon come true.
The "street shopping" tradition at Graham Market, the kaifongs and human touch in this old neighbourhood remain despite the redevelopment. Besides, redevelopment also brings a new image and new facilities to the market, manifesting the harmony between the old and the new.