Fines and sympathy for the egg-waffle man

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 April, 2011, 12:00am


He had to face the wrath of the law, but the old egg-waffle hawker had plenty of supporters, including concern groups and Facebook members, to soften the blow.

Supporters from as far away as Tin Shui Wai attended the hearing in Eastern Court, but they did not save Ng Yuk-fai, 72, from being fined for the 38th time for illegal hawking.

Ng pleaded guilty to three offences: street obstruction, illegal hawking and cooking food for sale without a licence. He will have to pay HK$780 in fines within a month.

Standing before the magistrate and dressed in his usual shorts, the waffle-maker hesitated before admitting the final offence yesterday. 'I hadn't started cooking yet,' he said initially.

He made a U-turn, however, and admitted the charge after the magistrate repeated: 'If you have done so, plead guilty. If you have not, do not plead guilty.'

Ng was fined HK$220 for street obstruction, HK$280 for illegal hawking, and a further HK$280 for illegally cooking food.

Yet financial help was his for the asking. Billy Chan Kai-sing, chief executive of the group-shopping website Baby Bamboo, came to the court with an offer for Ng. Chan's website has received 900 orders for egg waffles over the past few days, which could raise more than HK$13,000 for Ng.

If Ng rejects the offer, the money will be refunded, Chan said. 'The response was good. We sold out all our coupons in four days.'

There was nothing ordinary about Ng's arrest on Sunday: it attracted a crowd of over 100 people on the pavement next to Queen's College and the sympathy of thousands more on the internet.

Yesterday's court appearance was also far from normal: 20 people chanted slogans outside the building to show their support, while a crowd of reporters chased after the city's newest icon to no avail - Ng refused to comment after the judgment.

An unlicensed hawker from Tin Shui Wai, who attended the hearing, said. 'We do not cause any nuisance or disruption. They [Food and Environmental Hygiene Department's inspectors] said we pose a threat to public health and hygiene. But have you ever heard of any kind of egg-waffle poisoning? Usually it is the big diner chains that come up in the food-poisoning news.'

Facebook users and concern group members also showed up to show their support, eating egg waffles before the hearing started.

A woman who works as a cleaner in a restaurant near Ng's small wooden house said she sometimes went and bought a lunchbox for Ng, but hasn't seen him around for days.

'It's too cruel a way to treat an old man who just wants to earn a meagre living,' she said of Ng's fine.

Tai Hang resident Wong Tak, who has lived in the area for more than 40 years, said: 'My friends and I grew up eating at street stalls everywhere in this neighbourhood, but that scene no longer exists. It's sad to see how things change completely as time goes by.'

Conservation writer Roger Ho said Ng should be granted a licence in order to preserve the delicacy. 'Egg waffles roasted with charcoal are very hard to find nowadays,' he said. 'The food is unique in Hong Kong, and its history can be dated back to soon after the second world war.'

Ho noted that the Development Bureau is working to preserve the city's intangible cultural heritage, and questioned why another department is working to destroy it.

But Denny Ho Kwok-leung, an associate professor of sociology at Polytechnic University, said it would be difficult for the government to make a legal exception for Ng unless residents agreed to accept the health risks involved in hawking.

Hawkers involve compromises on fire safety and hygiene, and discussions are needed to help the government rule on such issues, he said. Yet the city lacks a mechanism for such risk-sharing discussions.

'In the Netherlands, residents work with the government over building their neighbourhoods. Our government should start such initiatives now,' he said.