Last Sunday the metaphorical fire burning in the hearts of election candidates was matched by a very real one in the heart of Hong Kong. The 100-year-old Yau Ma Tei Wholesale Fruit Market – a Grade II historic building – went up in flames on Sunday afternoon as voters headed to the polls.
The low-rise market building burnt fiercely with smoke that was even visible on Hong Kong Island.
The blaze escalated to third-alarm within 13 minutes, engulfing 25 stalls before firefighters were able to put it out.
No one was killed or injured during the fire, but Mrs. Tsang, a worker from a store near the affected area, came close. “I was just packing and tidying up the store like my boss told me,” she said.
“I had the gates pulled almost all the way down leaving open only a small gap… and I was not aware that there was a fire until I saw smoke gushing in from the gap.”
When she finally lifted the gates to see what was going on outside, police were already present, shocked to find out that she was still inside.
She said she was fortunate. Fortunate because the fire did not take her life, but also because the fire did not take away her livelihood.
“What else could I do?” she asked. “If the place was burnt down, I would lose my job. This is the only job I know how to do; moving fruit is the only labour I am physically capable of.”
The cluster of stalls originally known as the Government Vegetables Market was built in 1913, mainly selling fruit and vegetables. Livestock and Fish traders moved in during the 1930s but quickly left as the Cheung Sha Wan Fishery Wholesaling market came online in 1965. During those 30-odd years, the market transformed Yau Ma Tei from a small Chinese community to the heart of Hong Kong’s commercial trade.
Mr. Lo, who asked not to be photographed, is the owner of one of the stalls directly beside where the fire broke out. He said it is likely that the fire started when the charger of an electric pallet truck short circuited. “The Fruit Market is not an easy place to burn down,” he said.
“We are well equipped with fire extinguishers,” he said as he pointed at his stall. “We have two on the ground floor and one on the first.”
Taking a closer look at his now charred and empty fruit stall, it is more solidly constructed than one may expect. Thick steel beams ground the structure, while thinner ones run along the roof in a grid.
He said: “we want to protect ourselves too. Our livelihoods are here, we practically live here.” His stall, and most others, remained standing despite their interior bearing clear evidence of scorching flames.
“Had there been a fire on any other day or time, it would not have burnt so fiercely,” he said with confidence. He said people would have reacted quickly and the fire would have been put out before it had a chance to spread.
Hardly anyone was present at the Fruit Market at the time of the blaze as it was a Sunday afternoon, Mr. Lo explains, and there was no fruit to be transported or delivered at that hour. Because of this, there was no loss of life, but also the fire was free to engulf a sizeable section of the market.
Mr. Lo’s stockpile of fruit was cremated, but what seemed to upset him more was the tank of Koi fish he had situated at the centre of his stall, that he said was worth tens of thousands of dollars.
What is left of it now is a tank of murky maroon-coloured water. Right next to it, strangely, is an intact statue of Wong Tai Sin. He said the statue had been through two fires, including this one, but neither was able to damage it.
He estimated that it would take half a year, at least, for everything to return to working order.
But he said he does not want to move, neither does he want the market to be relocated. Although there had been debate in the past as to whether the market should be relocated, the idea never quite took off.
“Rents will increase, the stalls will go upmarket, and the people will suffer expensive fruit,” he said. “The reason fruit distributed from here are cheap is because of its location,” situated at the centre of Hong Kong.
Aside from the affected stalls, business-as-usual prevails at the market.
And soon, even Mr. Lo hopes to reopen his doors to customers: “We have been here for over 100 years, longer than any residents have.”