Many cities around the world have suburbs famous for a particular retail industry, such as the Akihabara electronics district in Tokyo and London’s Saville Row. Then there’s the diamond district in NYC and the famous lady boys from Pingpong Road, Bangkok – how these areas start and prosper is usually a mystery, but there’s one enigma close to my heart that I can share with you all today and that’s the world famous Sneaker Street in Hong Kong.
Being a HK local, I am constantly quizzed by visitors, ‘Where can I find the best club, monkey-brain restaurant, low-rent hookers etc’. But the question I am ALWAYS asked without fail is, ‘How the hell do I find Sneaker Street?’ It’s one of Hong Kong’s most famous cultural attractions and depending on how good your map reading skills are, one of the hardest to find for tourists.
Located in the suburb of Mong Kok on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, Sneaker Street (or by its real name, Fa Yuen Street) is one of three central shopping hot spots along with Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui. One of the popular misconceptions is that it’s a continuous strip lined with sneaker stores. In reality, Sneaker Street is a 150-metre square block beginning at Argyle St and ending at Dundas St. Still, the sheer variety of product and the number of footwear stores makes it unique in the world.
Fa Yuen opened its first sneaker stores during the late ‘70s when footwear businesses relocated there due to increasing rents elsewhere. At that time, Fa Yuen contained primarily Mahjong houses (crazy dens where people play the popular Chinese game), laundry shops and local eateries, so the sight of sneaker stores on the street was pretty strange, but hey, the rent was cheap! It is widely believed that the real reason Fa Yuen was chosen is because of its proximity to the very famous La Salle College and Diocesan Boys’ School. Both schools produce a large number of politicians and CEOs and are attended by the rich and famous families in Hong Kong. These fashion conscious kids are flush with cash and would hit the street after the bell had rung to ogle the latest sneaks. Shortly after, more and more stores opened up within the block. By the mid ‘90s there were estimates of over forty stores.
Today there are well over fifty! Five different companies own most of them, with the Wan Kee Sports Co. Ltd owning about ten and Toronto Sports coming a close second. I couldn’t tell you about the business logic of owning so many stores in the one area but it does appear that there is a mutual understanding about the pricing policies. If one company puts them up or down, the other shops will do the same. It’s a definite oligopoly of sorts, but thanks to Hong Kong’s pro-business approach and low tax rates, prices are some of the cheapest in the world. It’s a cliche but you never know exactly what you might find and I am also yet to see a fake anywhere here so you can buy with some confidence.
Here’s where the story hits a snag. In 1998, a proposal was put forward to redevelop Sneaker Street. Apparently due to the ‘age’ of the buildings, developers wanted to upgrade the street’s image to match its position as one of Hong Kong’s premier shopping spots. The proposal was put on hold for some reason but soon reappeared and was given the green light by the Hong Kong Government’s Urban Renewal Authority in 2007. The project covers a total of 14 buildings, 175 ownerships of housing flats and 16 different sneaker stores. The grand total of the entire project was quoted as up to HKD$10 billion with the majority of the money used in buying back the buildings and stores, and estimated to take at least seven years to complete.
The news immediately drew a lot of criticism and disapproval by the media, the residents on the street and the owners of the stores. Consensus said the proposal would destroy a one-of-a-kind shopping area unique to Hong Kong and it’s hard to see a positive for the average shopper. So the news is grim to say the least. In removing the raw and exciting strip from the HK vista, part of Hong Kong’s cultural identity will be wiped out forever. We will lose a common meet-up place for local kids and visiting sneaker heads alike, and a piece of history as well. Let’s hope Sneaker Street survives and our little cultural gem can continue to provide sneaker heads with their poison for years to come.