Change of heart on hawkers welcome

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 February, 2009, 12:00am

Hong Kong's street hawkers tend to be seen in black-and-white terms - either out of step with the city's modern image, or part of its living heritage worth preserving. While the government has tried over the years to reduce the number of hawkers by attrition, there has been growing public interest in efforts to protect and preserve them.

They may be seen as examples of 'collective memory' and 'intangible heritage'. The public uproar over the demolition of the old Star Ferry pier was a landmark for recognition of these conservation values. The government is now relaxing its tight grip on hawker licences in response to community pressure to keep and revitalise the hawking trade. It is considering reissuing licences and relaxing the rules on transferring them.

The moves represent a welcome change of heart. It is not that long since a senior official told lawmakers that nuisance and hygiene issues justified forcing dai pai dong off the streets, and a tourism official rejected calls to promote them, saying: 'We do not want tourists to feel Hong Kong is not a clean place.' The threat posed by development to intangible heritage is recognised by a United Nations conservation convention. Failure to preserve it could make Hong Kong - still a relatively young city - a place without a past. The way we were is a precious collective memory for present and future generations.

We should not forget, however, that the government had good reasons to be concerned about the number of hawkers who once plied their trade in so many of our crowded streets.

The aim now should be to introduce regulations that ensure they are clean, safe and cause no trouble, while not allowing them to compete unfairly with conventional shopkeepers. There is a need for the number of licences granted to be kept under control.

With the contemporary emphasis on living rather than soulless streetscapes, there may even be scope to create well-run hawking areas. In this way, we can preserve a slice of life that adds to Hong Kong's appeal to locals and visitors alike.