by Adam Wright
Ng Yuk-fai has been selling one of Hong Kong's most famous snacks on the streets of Tai Hang for so long that he is known to most local residents simply as 'the old egg waffle man'.
The 74-year-old belongs to the army of hard-working hawkers who have put Hong Kong street food on the map by pushing rickety carts around the city and plying everything from stuffed peppers and fishballs to chewy squid and stinky tofu, and the rarely sighted dragon's beard candy.
In his three decades as the iconic egg waffle man, Ng has refused to accept welfare and used his modest income to support his wife and three children, who remain in their hometown of Lufeng, Guangdong.
Ng is a part of Hong Kong's tangible cultural heritage, and is such a fixture in his area that he has been receiving an increasing amount of attention from government workers this year. However, instead of trying to enlist him in a tourism campaign or learn the secret behind his tasty waffles, they have been arresting him.
On Sunday Ng was taken in for the sixth time this year. He hadn't even started selling waffles when he was accosted by officers from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, and the police eventually had to be called when angry residents came out in support of the elderly hawker.
Street food is as Hong Kong as the Star Ferry and Mark Six, and used to be a highlight of any visit to the city - as well as a source of pride for local foodies. There's something magical about eating a greasy snack straight out of a brown paper bag, with melted butter or soy sauce dripping off your chin. But one by one, due to increasing government pressure, the vendors are disappearing.
Officials say they're trying to protect public health, but we're not sure what kind of threat is posed by the humble egg waffle. Any connoisseur of local street food will admit the occasional upset stomach is an occupational hazard, but we can't recall any adventurous diners being killed by a roast chestnut, or even stinky tofu.
Keep in mind that 1,200 people meet an early death each year due to the city's air pollution, according to figures provided by the University of Hong Kong. So if protecting public health really is the objective, why isn't the Environmental Protection Department prosecuting polluters with the same zeal that the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department is going after street food hawkers?
Ng is, of course, unlicensed and acknowledges it's not wrong to arrest him for breaking the law. It's just the increasing frequency of arrests that has left Ng annoyed and the Tai Hang community up in arms, particularly when pirated DVD sellers are left untouched in the same area. Each time, Ng has been fined HK$800 and then has to spend HK$2,000 to replace the carts and equipment that are confiscated.
Naturally, The buzz isn't encouraging anyone to break the law, but is wondering why these quintessentially Hong Kong hawkers can't be licensed like the famed shoe shiners of Theatre Lane in Central who won a reprieve after a similar public outcry.
Too much of Hong Kong's cultural heritage has been demolished by the wreckers' ball. Another link to our past would be lost if street-food hawkers are forced off the streets. Let's license them and leave them where they are - don't force them into sterile stainless-steel stalls where the soul of the food is lost. Because as one Tai Hang fan of Ng's snacks told the Post: 'There aren't many who sell egg waffles baked on charcoal stoves these days. They taste better.'