Why is Hong Kong so literally green?

Why is Hong Kong so literally green?

In search of the reason for the city's obsession with covering everything in a slick coat of green paint

green hong kongNothing like a lime green concrete-covered slope to brighten up a corner.

If we had to pick a color to associate with Hong Kong, the obvious choice would be a big, brash, Chinese red.

Yet, many Hongkongers would pick red's complementary hue: green.

“I call this color ‘grassroots green,’” said Hulu Culture co-founder and Hong Kong history expert Simon Go.

“The windows, the market stalls, the trams, the Star Ferry. It’s everywhere, in all of the most famous Hong Kong things.”

We were seated inside the historic Mido Café where the 1950s-era metal window frames were, of course, painted green.

Also read A tour of Shanghai Street with the 'Old Hong Kong' expert.

green hong kongThe deep emerald of the iconic Star Ferry echoes the seaweed green waters.But why is green such a Hong Kong favorite? Go speculated that back in the day, the Hong Kong government might have required market stalls to be painted green as a measure of consistency.

I got the same answer from the owner of a paint shop on Wellington Street, in the middle of Hong Kong’s oldest street market.

“The hawkers come here to buy their paint and they choose from a few different shades of green,” said the shop owner, who didn't want to be identified. “I think it has to do with government policy.”

When I emailed a spokeswoman for the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department,  she told me the government didn’t regulate the color that market vendors used.

“In constructing a hawker stall at the allocated pitch, the licensee is required to comply with the permitted dimensions on size and height for the stall,” the email stated. “There is no color requirement for the hawker stalls, but they are traditionally painted in green.”

So much for that theory. I kept asking around.

green hong kongA lilac dai pai dong just wouldn't be the same.

“Green is popular because it hides dirt really well,” said Lam King-wing, the owner of a dai pai dong on Gutzlaff Street that specializes in beef innards.

Incidentally, his dai pai dong was recently rebuilt as part of a controversial government renovation project. Its traditional green wood and metal walls have been replaced by unpainted stainless steel.

The building material of these stalls might have something to do with the paint coating that is required.

“Market booths use a lot of mild steel sections, and mild steel tends to rust, unlike stainless steel, so it needs protection,” says architect Daniel Patzold. “In the past, there weren’t so many colors available, and some had particular chemical qualities that made them good to use. Green might have been one of those.”

Two years ago, Patzold and his partners, Syren Johnstone and Kingsley Ng, removed a decades-old market booth from Gutzlaff Street and replaced it with a new replica. They now use the old booth, nicknamed Hung Bak, for performances and art installations.

Also read How 3 artists could save Hong Kong's Central market.

It was recently on display at ART HK, where Patzold looked at its weather-worn surface and pointed out several layers of paint: yellow primer, a vivid green and a darker, more recent shade of green.

“The original green was very bold. It used a lot of chemicals that aren’t used in paint anymore,” Patzold said.

green hong kongA creamy green for this café that serves creamy milk teas.

Which raises an important point: not all greens are the same. Even in a single street market, different booths are painted different shades, from the lighter Apple Green to the darker Larch Green, which is most popular.

A creamier shade of green has traditionally been used to paint concrete and interior walls.

A dark green is used on the trams and Star Ferry, at least those that are not wrapped in advertising. Chinese University cultural studies professor Oscar Ho suggests it might be related to the early 20th century popularity of British Racing Green, the color used to represent Britain in car racing tournaments.

“It is pretty much an upper-middle-class British colour," says Ho. "Who else could afford to join international car racing? If you like to interpret it that way, then the deep green is very much a British colonial byproduct."

Still, none of this was very conclusive, so I arranged to meet Simon Go again, this time in Shek Kip Mei. He arrived bearing an iPad loaded with historical photos of Hong Kong.

green hong kongThe red, white and green colors of old Hong Kong.

When Hong Kong boomed after World War II, he explained, few paint colours were available, partly because of lingering wartime shortages.

Just about everything was painted with the same three commonly-available colors: vanilla white, candy red and bright green. You can still see this color scheme in many old shop signs and even the white, red and green neon signs used by pawnshops.

Green was popular because it didn’t easily appear dirty and other readily-available colors had cultural associations that made them unpalatable for everyday use. Blue was associated with funerals, for instance, and red with celebrations.

green hong kongFreshening up the place with a coat of honeydew.

“Green was the most common until the 1960s,” Go said. “It was everywhere. I remember when I was a kid, everyone had the same green color at home. The walls were painted green, the floor tiles were green and white. I asked my parents why and they said, ‘Everyone else has it, so why not us?’”

Go suggested, with a touch of romance, that green’s popularity stemmed in part from nostalgia for the mainland Chinese farms that many people left when they came to Hong Kong.

“My grandmother used to say, ‘When I dream of the motherland, I always dream of green,’” he said. “That’s when I first found out she lived on a farm.”

Green’s popularity began to fade in the 1970s, when Hong Kong became increasingly wealthy and more sophisticated paint colors emerged on the market.

But old habits die hard. When a portion of the Fa Yuen Street market burned down last winter, hawkers rebuilt their stalls and dutifully painted them green.

“It’s been green for as long as I can remember,” said one. “I don’t know why. It’s like how the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. That’s just the way it is.”

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
Read more about Christopher DeWolf