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Hawker Reload: The social obligation of architecture

The winner of the INDE.Awards 2019 Influencer category (partnered by Careers Indesign) exemplifies the massive impact that a socially-minded vision can have.

Hawker Reload: The social obligation of architecture

Spend some time chatting with Manfred Yuen, the co-founder of Hong Kong- and Shenzhen-based Groundwork Architects + Associates, and you’ll soon have a sense of the breadth of perspective he brings to his practice of architecture.

“I feel that Groundwork is a social mission,” he says when we speak in his Hong Kong studio. “We’re not a traditional company.” He describes the commercial, education, cultural and research work carried out by Groundwork, and talks about the economic inequality that shapes the lives of Hong Kongers. “As architects, we have social obligations,” he says.

Hawker reload

It’s little surprise, therefore, that the threat of eradication of the city’s street markets drove him and a team from Hong Kong Polytechnic University (where he was teaching at the time, alongside his practice) to action, resulting in an impressive government turnaround.

‘Hawker Reload: Hong Kong Street Market Urban Design and Hawker Stall Implementation’ was a multi-year research and implementation project that saved over 4,036 hawker stalls and 63 street markets in Hong Kong.

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The back story is a sad one. One evening in November 2011, a fire broke out at Fa Yuen Street – one of Hong Kong’s most prominent street markets – and claimed nine lives. Instead of moving to improve the fire integrity of the hawker stalls, the Hong Kong Government contemplated eradicating all street markets.

Hong Kong street markets (each coloured green and sized 120 x 90 x 210cm) are a ‘must-see’ for tourists and the basis of livelihood for many. The thought of eradicating them for sanitary and/or fire integrity was beyond Yuen’s comprehension. The university assessed the situation and pulled together a cross-departmental research team – including Yuen – to investigate.

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“During 120 years of colonial rule, none of the governmental/policy-writing projects ever consulted the public in Hong Kong for public opinion,” says Yuen. “We were the first to introduce public engagement as part of our design brief formulation. We interviewed 223 hawkers over 8 months, just to understand their needs. We were stationed at the street market for weeks so the hawkers could express their views.”

Hawker reload

Manfred Yuen interviewing hawkers

The insights gathered led to the development of a flexible stall design that would be easily managed by an older person. As it turns out, 70 per sent of the hawker stall owners are over 65 years of age. The simple design – cheap to implement – was developed with 1.5mm-thick galvanised steel, which, says Yuen, was the best material candidate for providing one hour of fire integrity. Fire tests were carried out as part of the research, and the assumption was that an hour would be an adequate window for the arrival of a fire truck.

Not only did the team manage to salvage all street markets in Hong Kong; it also persuaded the Government to create a 3-million USD fund to be distributed among the 4,036 hawkers, so that they may improve their stalls according to the standards prescribed – such that the fire integrity, electrical safety performance and user friendliness may all improve.


“An unprecedented intervention that saved Hong Kong’s street markets”

– INDE.Awards 2019 Jury


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Thank you to Careers Indesign – The Influencer partner of the INDE.Awards 2019.


Photography: Groundwork Architects + Associates and Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

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