Jumping through hoops no easy task

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 July, 2008, 12:00am

When Tarlan Amigh decided to turn her dream of setting up an arts and crafts market in Hong Kong into reality she knew it would be hard work. But she had no idea how hard she would have to work at dealing with government bureaucracy.

Ms Amigh is the brains behind Open Air, the company that has been running the Pok Fu Lam market since March 2007 and the Discovery Bay market since September 2007. She was also responsible for the Borrett Road market, which started in October 2006 but stopped after nine months due to 'infuriating' parking regulations in the Borrett Road area.

The markets, which offer everything from organic produce to clothing, jewellery and handcrafted gifts, take place once a month on a Sunday in each location, with between 50 and 150 vendors attending each one.

'I learned very quickly that there are lots of hoops you have to jump through. It surprised me. I thought I would need a permit to operate the markets and that didn't deter me, I just didn't know I would need so many,' said Ms Amigh, a 33-year-old Iranian, who grew up in Australia.

The permits she is referring to cover several areas, including two different licences to play music at each market, a temporary food factory licence so that vendors can sell food and a place of public entertainment licence, because the market is considered 'entertainment'. A fire safety certificate is also needed, as is proof of public liability insurance and on-site security and cleaning.

Ms Amigh said she could deal with having to meet and greet the officials from each permit-issuing department, who make a point of attending every market, every month. What frustrates her is that every month, Open Air has to submit new paperwork for each licence, for each location.

'We're more efficient now and submit our paperwork in four-month cycles. But it still takes days to photocopy it all and change the dates on each form. And then there are lots of random questions to answer and additional documents to supply,' she said.

'I think they rotate the person within the government who looks after the markets to keep it all fair, which is good for them but not for us. Every two months we've got a new person to deal with and we've got to say, 'No! It's not the fair at Stanley, it's not like that'. It's treated pretty much like a whole new thing and we've got to start explaining it from scratch.'

Ms Amigh, who grew up amid the hubbub of the markets in Brisbane, where her mother was a vendor, described the paperwork 'as just a little bit tedious', especially when it came to the temporary food factory licence. Getting government-approved food vendors has posed somewhat of a challenge for the Open Air team because of the stringent rules that must be adhered to.

'We're definitely learning as we go. We only found out six months ago that people selling baked goods, such as cakes, don't need to have a temporary food factory licence. I'm still not 100 per cent clear on how it works, but basically we're not allowed to cook food on site. So burgers and hotdogs are allowed because technically they are just reheated. And then it's got to be on electric flames and not gas flames. But who has an electric barbecue?'

Turning 'great' potential food vendors away because they are most likely cooking out of their kitchens, and not government-approved food factories, has been frustrating for Ms Amigh, whose vision for the market is a space where people in the community can turn their hobbies into business.

But of all the challenges of running the markets, the biggest for Ms Amigh has been dealing with people's expectations. 'The public are tough and they have a level of expectations, just like I do. I grew up in markets and I want them to remind me of home,' she said. 'In terms of vendors, if we have regular vendors the public go: 'Oh! It's the same vendors every week.' And if the regular vendors aren't there they go: 'Where's my cookie guy or where's my bag lady?' Managing the expectations of the vendors and the public is really the biggest challenge that we deal with.'

To keep the concept fresh, and the public happy, vendors are offered a 25 per cent discount on stall fees which go up to about HK$1,800 a day if they introduce a vendor to the market. Regular vendors who sign up to do four markets or more are also rewarded by having their logos placed on the company's marketing material.

Despite the challenges and the criticism hurled at her by disgruntled customers, Ms Amigh said the public had been mostly very supportive. She is passionate about her market concept and is looking to expand in several areas, including Sai Kung, and putting on more Moonlight Movie nights, an idea for which she is also responsible.

'I've learned to disregard feedback that won't help me produce a better result. There's a bigger picture here and the market is what it is and it's for the community. I'm just really lucky that I do something that I love.'