Brush-off for shoeshiners in Theatre Lane revamp
Daniel Sin and Tanna Chong
The developer of the demolished Queen's Theatre says it will not allow shoeshiners to operate within the new premises as it is private property.
It also warned against them being allowed outside its perimeter as they might block fire engines and ambulances in the event of an emergency.
Lau Chi-keung, project manager for the redevelopment, said the shoeshiners might occupy part of Theatre Lane intended for emergency vehicles and affect evacuation.
The Luk Hoi Tung Building which housed Queen's Theatre is being redeveloped into a 27-storey commercial building offering shops, offices and upmarket restaurants.
Five shoeshiners who have been making a meagre living in the lane for many years had faced eviction by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department for operating without licences and obstructing public roads. Their plight drew wide compassion in the community, including Central and Western District Council, which ruled last month that they should be given proper licences to maintain their livelihoods.
But the developer, Luk Hoi Tong, issued a letter to the department through its solicitors, saying the shoeshiners should not be located outside its building.
Mr Lau explained that a formal letter was issued because the department had ignored an earlier plea from the company. It urged discretion in allocating a position to the shoeshiners because putting them next to an access area for emergency vehicles might contravene statutory requirements.
The developer maintained that it did not object to the presence of shoeshiners in the vicinity.
Cynthia Ching, administrative manager for Luk Hoi Tong, said: 'Whether it might affect our property's image is not our concern.'
Mr Lau said the redevelopment would leave a 1.6-metre wide pavement from Theatre Lane when it was completed in April 2011. But he said the area belonged to the developer and the government could not licence shoeshiners to operate there.
He also dismissed a suggestion that a small stall area be made available to them at a concessionary rent.
'Considering a stall in Central district, how low can the rent be? They still have to pay their licence fees.'
A shoeshine licence includes a fixed operating space that measures 15cm by 22.5cm and costs HK$2,590 a year.
Lau Win-ming, one of the shoeshiners who has been operating in Theatre Lane for 15 years, said the developer was being inconsiderate.
'We are all only trying to make a living,' he said.
Mr Lau said Theatre Lane used to be accessible to traffic, so it was wide enough for both their operations and vehicles. 'We only carry a box, and we can leave immediately when there is an emergency.'
He said it was necessary for them to remain in Theatre Lane because customers were used to seeing them there and they would lose business if they had to move elsewhere.
Lawmaker Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said the shoeshiners occupied a small area and would not become an obstruction. She said that shoeshiners had told her they were flexible as to the exact spot they were allowed to operate on as long as they could remain in Theatre Lane.
'It does not have to be a fixed pitch. And if it is a fixed pitch, Theatre Lane should be big enough to accommodate many passers-by and the shoeshiners.'
But shoeshiners are only half of the developer's worries.
Mr Lau said that news-stands on the corner of the redevelopment site facing Queen's Road Central, and two more between the site and the adjacent Wing On Life Building, should be relocated or reduced in size as they might also block emergency access.
Lo Chun-sing, proprietor of one of the news-stands, rejected this claim, saying that in the event of an evacuation they would be able to remove their temporary structures and items very quickly without causing an obstruction.
A spokesman for the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said relevant departments, including the Fire Services Department, did not object to the shoeshiners being in Theatre Lane outside the Luk Hoi Tung Building.
He said the department was in the process of issuing a fixed-location licence to the shoeshiners and would meet the developer to address its concerns.
There are three more shoeshiners in the district.