Less red tape would make streets more alive

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 March, 2008, 12:00am

Culture starts on the streets, so one argument goes. If this contention is true, the state of the arts and entertainment in Hong Kong can only be said to be woeful.

There is no shortage of bustle on our streets, with the main commercial areas teeming with shoppers, tourists and commuters. What sets us apart from big cities in western countries, though, is the lack of street entertainment. In public places in London, New York or Sydney, there is no shortage of singers, instrumentalists, comedians, jugglers and magicians.

Such people are known as buskers; some do it for the sheer pleasure of performing in public, others for the loose change given by appreciative passers-by. A few do it for the practice. And there is always the chance of being spotted by a talent agent and turned into a star. No matter whether they are professional or amateur, residents or tourists, polished or mediocre, they represent the soul of a city.

Hong Kong would seem to have a dim view of such entertainment, if the rules are any guide. Buskers need to have a permit, which must be applied for through the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department in quadruplicate. It takes 18 days to issue and is valid only for the dates specified. The department has issued a 126-page guide to applying for a licence.

The system is so inconvenient that few buskers have licences. Police enforcing the rules tell performers to move on and generally do so without explaining the need for a permit. Tourists rarely have enough visa time for such formalities.

Nonetheless, there is good reason for regulating street entertainment. Our pavements are busy and buskers could obstruct pedestrian flow. Shop owners may object to the type of entertainment taking place outside their premises. The performance may be inappropriate for a general audience or the quality poor.

But while other cities also regulate busking, many have done so with flexibility in mind. The mechanism for obtaining licences is often straightforward. As a consequence, the streets and squares of such cities are lively and feed into the culture that exists in their entertainment venues.

Hong Kong is not a cultural desert; the variety and quality on show at the recently ended, month-long arts festival attested otherwise. Shopping centres are increasingly showcasing fine acts. But there is also no doubt we could do better. The perfect place to start would be at the grass roots, through freeing up rules for buskers.