Wet market woes in Tin Shui Wai
A look at social problems in Tin Shui Wai brings to mind a single word: helplessness. Most people living in the area are poor - and are helpless to do anything about it.
It has often been pointed out that living expenses in Tin Shui Wai are higher than in other parts of the city. So the question is: Why do low-income people face such high costs of living?
Many people answer by pointing a finger at The Link, a publicly listed company that runs wet markets and shopping malls for public housing estates around Hong Kong. They accuse The Link of favouring large chain stores by setting high rents which small, privately owned businesses cannot pay.
That policy benefits The Link's shareholders but has disastrous consequences for consumers and small business owners.
'Shopping in Tin Shui Wai is monotonous,' said Athena Wong Wing-chi, a social worker from the Community Development Alliance. 'Whichever shopping mall you go to, you see the same stores and same restaurants. There is no competition. It is just those handful of chain stores everywhere.'
Small business owners are up against a powerful force, Wong said. She mentioned the case of a housewife who wanted to rent a shop at a mall operated by The Link and was asked to present a business proposal. 'This is too much to ask from a housewife,' Wong said. 'It is obvious that the company does not welcome small businesses.'
Yet it is cheap and simple services provided by small businesses that low-income families in Tin Shui Wai need. 'I don't see how a family with a monthly income of HK$15,000 will want to pay for luxury products and services by world-famous brands in high-end malls,' Wong said.
Skyrocketing rents have forced small business owners to set up shop at wet markets. Yet there, too, rents can be punishing.
The Link Watch, an organisation set up by citizens to monitor the company's activities, insists it has evidence that The Link abuses tenants at wet markets. The company, said Joan Lee Tsui-king of The Link Watch, employs contractors to help run wet markets by acting as middlemen. The Link rents store space to contractors who in turn rent it out to tenants at an even higher price. 'It is like a pyramid scheme,' Lee said. 'Small businesses suffer by having to satisfy the greed of both The Link and its contractors.'
A simple comparison between the rent of two wet markets in Tin Shui Wai - one operated by The Link, the other by the Housing Authority - demonstrates her point.
In an October 2008 survey, the watchdog compared differences in the rents of stores in Chung Fu wet market operated by The Link and Tin Yan wet market operated by the Housing Authority. The average rent per square metre in Chung Fu ranged from HK$1,210 to HK$2,300. In Tin Yan, however, it was just HK$815 to HK$1,179. The two markets are at the same location and separated only by a foot bridge.
Link Watch activists suspect the company's contractors are squeezing existing tenants out so they can operate their own businesses. Lee noted the case of a Chinese barbecue meat stall whose monthly rent more than doubled from HK$23,000 to HK$50,000. The tenant had no choice but to move out. Yet soon after, a new Chinese barbecue meat stall was set up on the spot. 'I have no proof that the new stall is run by a contractor,' Lee said. 'But the facts make me suspicious.'
Such high rents at wet markets in outlying areas certainly seem unwarranted.
Supporters of The Link note that the company had taken over wet markets and malls at public housing estates from the Housing Authority to improve their management . Previously, many market stalls stood empty or were used as storage rooms. They say The Link, with their efficient management, has improved things.
Members of The Link Watch dispute such claims. They insist the new management has been a disaster; they demand more money in rental fees while providing less service.
The Housing Authority sets out the number and variety of stalls at a wet market to ensure both costumers and businesses can benefit and receive fair deals.
The Link, on the other hand, has no such rules. The company does not care about the type and quality of a business; it cares only whether a shop pays rent. 'Some stalls have been rented out for the sale of pirated handbags. But The Link doesn't care. It is willing to rent to whoever will pay the rent,' Lee said.
To add insult to injury, The Link demands that tenants also pay extra in management and air-conditioning fees. As for improvements brought by The Link, Lee had this to say: 'A team of security guards patrols the market. When they see tenants blocking passageways, they will stop that.'