Vacant premises turned into ‘third places’ Food by Hong Kong NGOs

In a tenement with a history of a corner structure in Hong Kong’s bustling Sheung Wan area, the former roast meat shop Yau Kee Hop has become an area where people go to get together.

Josephine Tsui, in her 60s, and the former director of an advertising firm, has visited the area, which measures 28 square meters (300 sq feet) at least a couple of times since the beginning of August to see a film and to listen to a talk or to learn a new craft.

“I love talking to people a lot,” she told me. “Life has been very stressful in recent years and many people need a space to breathe and talk.”

Josephine Tsui has visited the former roast meat shop Yau Kee Hop several times since August’s beginning to watch a film and to listen to a dialogue or learn a craft.      

Tsui, who lives in the region, has made new friends and discovered the lives of other people and was impressed by the human touch she felt was lacking at similar events she’s had elsewhere.

“People need spaces like this to express feelings and find comfort, though such a need is greatest among the underprivileged,” she said.

It is the Yau Kee Hop meeting spot is an impromptu “third place” inspired by the idea of American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the 1980s.

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He says that homes can be the “first places,” workplaces are “second places,” and informal public spaces serve as “third places” to meet and socialize with others.

Recognizing that a large number of Hongkongers have a difficult time finding such places, a few NGOs in the city are converting empty retail buildings into third spaces temporarily.

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Similar to this, the city’s welfare authorities have also stated that they’ll establish “community living rooms” for residents of subdivided apartments to utilize and aid in building a network of mutual support.

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Sarah Mui Sze-wah, the Architect, was able to see an opportunity to utilize this Yau Kee Hop space when she had a conversation with the landlord, who was looking for ways to make it an event space for social interaction.

The co-founders of One Bite Social are Sarah Mui and program coordinator Stephanie Cheung at Project House in Sheung Wan.      

Co-founder of One Bite Social, an NGO that promotes the idea of rethinking the urban environment, She opted to set up a pop-up 3rd location in the area for seven weeks, from the end of July until mid-September.

She was worried that if the buildings were empty and there were fewer visitors, it would have an adverse impact on the local community.

“We want to identify the unmet needs of the community, and explore what function the space can serve and what tenant would fit the best in the future, our landlord was eager to know the answer too,” Mui said.

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With the cost of utilities and rent reduced by the landlord and operating costs financed through sponsorships and crowdfunding, Her team needed about a month to establish the center.

Between 11 am and 2 pm every day, Residents from the neighborhood visit to relax and talk. Some workers bring lunch to eat at the.

In the course time of daytime, the space is a hub of activities that range from social events to film nights, meditation classes, and health checks, as well as music shows and “human library” events where people tell tales of their lives.

They are offered in conjunction with more than thirty partners.

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Program manager Stephanie Cheung Yu-she said that the event was well-loved, and she believed the venue was also a benefit to the event – Yau Kee Hop was an “anchor of the community” for many years.

“We observed a genuine craving for connection among people, that was largely absent in the past three years due to the pandemic,” she explained.

After the pop-up was closed, the team was still evaluating the social experiment and considering ways to expand its reach.

On the other side of Victoria Harbour at Uplace, an outlet mall in the old neighborhood of To Kwa Wan, another NGO is running an additional location named “COMM, ON.”

Social Ventures Hong Kong (SVHK) received an invitation from the landlord Uni-China Asset Management to turn 3000 square feet of vacant commercial space into a temporary center between July and October with a cost of one-tenth the initial rent.

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Uni-China’s chief of asset management, Joe Ho Kam-you, explained that the company was unable to find a long-term tenant, which is why it decided to sell the space at a tenth of the cost.

He added: “Instead of leaving it unused, why don’t we let NGOs organise activities and bring more foot traffic to our businesses, while fulfilling our social responsibilities?”

The company also looked into whether the space could be a good fit for the center’s ‘family-friendly’ design as well as the requirements and features of the neighborhood.

Books are given importance in the community space that allows people to purchase books from small companies and participate in cultural and artistic activities.

“There is no bookstore around, that’s one of the reasons we wanted to use books to connect the people,” James Chong Kwok-tung, the creator of Rolling Books, a social company that encourages reading and is an SVHK partner.

James Chong, founder of Rolling Books, says people are invited to make use of the space to host workshops.      

“We also invite book lovers to sell second-hand books here and organise reading activities they are interested in.”

Visitors are encouraged to make use of the area, as well, by holding life skills workshops, for instance.

Asta Wong Puiman, a homemaker in her 40s rec, recently began hosting gardening classes.

“I love growing my own veggies, but my happiness reaches another level when I share my passion with others and see them learning to appreciate and respect nature,” she explained.

Wong took her two children to play at the playground that has books as well as toys.

Asta Wong is a recent participant in workshops on gardening in this community center.      

“It’s difficult to find a comfy and safe indoor space where you can relax without spending money in Hong Kong,” she added.

Eve Au Lok-hei, a Community partnership designer at SVHK and SVHK, said that the group was hopeful that the spirit of community that was evident in the community would last even after the lease was up.


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