Leeway for hawkers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 December, 1998, 12:00am

There are not many topics which attract a high level of agreement among the public, but it is hard to find anyone who believes that illegal hawkers are doing anything seriously wrong.

Laws have to be upheld, it is true. But is anything achieved by hounding unlicensed hawkers off the street, when most of them are simply trying to make a little money by selling goods that few department stores would touch? The trinkets and baubles, scarves and cheap alarm clocks that form the bulk of their merchandise hardly constitute a serious threat even to smaller shops.

While there are solid arguments to be made for banning illegal food stalls from the streets to ensure that basic hygiene regulations are not breached, that is where any serious problem ends.

Hawkers have always been an integral part of the community, typifying the free-market spirit as they maintain the self-sufficiency and independence of people who might otherwise have become part of the welfare burden.

The Government has recognised as much with the flea markets at Kai Tak and Tamar. But any plan which expects the average illegal hawker to pay $2,000 a day for a licensed booth is doomed from the outset.

Most of the stalls which appear at street corners, only to melt away like mist at the sight of a policeman, make pin money. Many are like the hawker who set fire to himself in court on Monday, lucky to earn that sum in a week.

They add to the variety of a city which must always seek to avoid becoming just another homogenised place where everybody acts in the same way and the streets are all like one another. Incessant development means there is a very real danger of the city losing that variety which, among other things, acts as an attraction to tourists.

When times are as hard as they are at present, it would do no harm to give the hawkers some leeway with cheaper permits and flexible rules. As things stand, their offence is minor and the damage they do minimal - compared, for example, to that caused by polluting vehicles. On the rare occasions when they are brought to court, drivers are fined trivial amounts while hawkers may have all their stock confiscated. That shows a strange sense of priorities.