Martin Booth: Gweilo
It's just not Christmas

The mall the merrier

Shopping Centres have been in the news recently, with the government's attempt to sell off the ones it (somewhat inexplicably) owns and manages. Seems like a good plan to me - most shopping centres on public housing estates are rundown and unattractive, and new management will surely bring about some improvements.

Shopping Centres play a fairly central role in Hong Kong life. Mainly because because a large air-conditioned mall is not an unattractive place to pass the time if you live in a tiny apartment with your mother-in-law, grandmother, or other assorted members of your extended family. Also, there are relatively few standalone shops and in many places walking along the street is often difficult and unpleasant. The connecting walkways above street level are also a good way of getting around, particular in the Central/Admiralty area, and new towns such as Tsuen Wan, Sha Tin and Tuen Mun.

Anyone who has spent any time in Hong Kong will know that there are all manner of different shopping centres dotted around the place, some very successful, others almost deserted. What makes the difference between success and failure?

Location is obviously important. For example, Plaza Hollywood in Diamond Hill was a brave attempt by the Wharf Group to establish an upmarket shopping centre in a relatively downmarket area. It is on top of the Diamond Hill MTR station and close to the Tate’s Cairn tunnel, but is mainly known as the site of the last surviving urban squatter camp in Hong Kong, only closed down about three years ago. To the south - squatter camps. To the west - public housing. To the east - open space and the Chi Lin Nunnery. To the north - mountains. Not perhaps the most promising location to build an upmarket shopping centres (unless nuns are voracious consumers of high-end electrical items).

The old tin shacks may have gone, but it’s still not exactly the most desirable part of Hong Kong. I remember that in the early days of Plaza Hollywood the shopkeepers were complaining that although the place was busy, the visitors didn't spend much money. Maybe if they had money they were spending it at Festival Walk, a few stops further on the Kwun Tong line. Anyway, it wasn’t long before the retailers started to respond. The large Tower Records shrunk to a tiny store and then closed down completely. Mothercare closed down. M&S abandoned one of their two floors. At one stage several unwanted units were used as clearance outlets for Lane Crawford (owned by the same group). Not a great success story, all round. It’s still there, of course, but it is hardly the shopping centre that its developers hoped to have when it opened five years ago.

Which brings us to Festival Walk, developed around the same time by Swire (also responsible for Pacific Place and Taikoo Place). The location couldn't really be better - at the interchange of KCR East Rail and the MTR Kwun Tong Line, and surrounded by high-end residential property. It seemed like a sure-fire winner when it opened, the only real complaints being about its many levels and long narrow shape, but the plentiful supply of escalators seemed to overcome this weakness.

They attracted more high-end shops than Plaza Hollywood and not only retained most of them but attracted more (though admittedly this is another place where M&S shrank their store). It has the excellent Page One bookstore and dozens of clothing and footwear stores, and it certainly looks like a big success story. Location isn’t everything, and it seems reasonable to conclude that it is better managed than, say, Plaza Hollywood.

A couple of stops away on KCR East Rail and you enter another world. Hong Kong's largest shopping mall, New Town Plaza in Sha Tin, is one of the most crowded and least pleasant places to spend your free time. The sheer size means that it isn't exactly upmarket or downmarket, but instead has something for everything. HMV (their only store in the New Territories), Muji, and goodness knows what else.

However, it's a vast and rather confusing place, and is surrounded by even more shopping centres in every direction, so it's extremely easy to get lost. Worse, at weekends they fill every available area of open space with special events and promotions, so that it becomes even more crowded.

Fortunately, SHKP do seem to doing something to improve New Town Plaza, mainly by constructing new escalators to make it easier to get around and allowing more natural light in to the place. Presumably the end result of this will be that the higher floors will command higher rentals than before, but from a customer's point of view it has also made it slightly more pleasant.

Going further north on the KCR you will soon get to Tai Po Market. Right next to the station is Uptown Plaza (SHKP again), with the classic mix of a bus station on the ground floor, shopping mall above, and then apartments on top. I lived here for a while, at which time the shopping centre had a good enough selection of stores, but was nothing particularly special.

Somewhat unusually, SKHP now seem to be trying to move it upmarket. This involves extensive renovation work to the common parts and all the shops (or at least all the shopfronts, which are being extended so that the glass goes all the way up to the ceiling). The effect is to create the illusion of more space, and this seems to be accompanied by turning most of the units over to more upmarket clothing and footwear retailers rather than dull old stationery shops, newspaper and magazine stands and the like.

It’ll be interesting to see whether it works. Many of the old tenants have been driven out, others have been persuaded to invest in improvement works, and they have attracted some new tenants (most notably Tom Lee music). It certainly looks much better than before, but as Plaza Hollywood demonstrates, that may not be enough to make it a success. However, with SHKP in charge it probably has a reasonable chance!


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Great pun!

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