Social Issues

The last days of Pang Jai, Hong Kong’s oldest textiles market

By Mar Sanchez-Cascado

Hong Kong, Jan 30 (EFE).- The narrow fabric-lined streets of the iconic Hong Kong Pang Jai market will close Tuesday after 40 years of activity in which designers, students and the curious came to look for original material and accessories.

Among her clients was Crystal Wang – who played in the street of Ki Lung since she was a child – in the district of Sham Shui Po, where the market originated. Together with her neighbors, she made dolls, jewelry with plastic beads and leather accessories.

They didn’t have to go far from home to find the materials: in 1970s Hong Kong, Ella Crystal bought everything she needed at the flea markets around her tiny apartment.

“Pang Jai was much more than a peddlers’ market. It was part of the unique social fabric of the city, it was a symbol of self-determination and people’s ingenuity in the face of bureaucracy,” the designer told EFE.

In the former British colony, street creativity has always been present in this populous working-class neighborhood.

But with rising rents, gentrification and a deteriorating economy following strict restrictions during the pandemic, old Hong Kong has succumbed in favor of skyscrapers or public housing buildings.

“Unfortunately, it has not happened as with the fabrics, that the stronger the union of the threads, the longer the fabric survives. The market closure is a terrible loss for the guild, without a doubt,” Wang said.

The artist said the ramshackle street bazaar, the oldest in the open air, earned her the nickname “Pang Jai,” which translates to “little huts,” because of its appearance.

With its awnings and patched sheet metal, it had the look of a temporary camp that had somehow managed to hold out for nearly half a century.

Moving through the narrow aisles of the market was an experience similar to going through the digestive tract of a great textile beast.

With its chaotic maze of rolls of fabric stacked to the ceiling and transformed into stalls, each stall seemed improvised, with an informal structure, unusual in a city that increasingly favors order and regulation.

There was no way to distinguish one stall from another and, apart from the occasional homemade sign, it was very difficult to correctly associate a stall with its owner.

It all started with the construction of the subway in the late 1970s, when vendors located at the corner of Yen Chow Road and Lai Chi Kok Road.

Over the years, the merchants have helped designers, hobbyists, film and theater producers, or DIYers find something unique among their endless collection of surplus textiles.

But space in Hong Kong is a precious commodity, and the number of independent hawker stalls began to dwindle steadily as the city began its own gentrification process.

The overnment saw an opportunity to develop the area, although it initially recognized the “unique contribution” of the market to the local heritage, economy and fashion industry.

Yet no one has been able to save it: despite a consortium proposing a plan to renovate it and move it to other nearby areas, many of the merchants asked for more affordable rents or relocation plans that never came.

On Tuesday, the most famous Hong Kong market comes to an end, and with it, who knows if the possible end of a modest but unique district, awash with houses lacking elevators or “tong lau,” the classic low abodes of the 20th century.

Anyone coming out of any subway station in the neighborhood can still come across all those flea markets flanked by concrete buildings, their once-glossy layers of paint now faded and peeling.

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