Safety outweighs our street culture

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 December, 2011, 12:00am


Arson is a heinous crime. If it was the cause of the Mong Kok market fire it is to be hoped police make a swift arrest. But the investigation will not solve a wider, potentially deadly problem. It was a tragedy waiting to happen that still poses a threat to life and property elsewhere in Hong Kong. The blaze that consumed the market stalls in the dead of night killed nine people in adjacent tenements who had nothing to do with them. Whether there was a motive or it was a case of pyromania or a 'thrill' crime does not matter. Even if someone is held accountable and locked away, that is little protection for the community against a similar tragedy.

The immediate focus in the wake of the city's deadliest fire in 15 years is, rightly, on securing the public safety of street markets, after those in Fa Yuen Street burst into an inferno in the early hours of Wednesday. The 200 stallholders have agreed to a raft of measures. They should apply across the board to street markets and be reviewed regularly for compliance and effectiveness.

Set under facades of old Hong Kong, street markets retain an authentic atmosphere not to be found when they are forced indoors by redevelopment or congregated in a dedicated area, as in Singapore. But therein lay the seeds of a deadly combination in Fa Yuen Street. Once it took hold in combustible goods stored overnight in the stalls, the fire raced up the stairwells of adjacent tenements and through more stock stored on lower floors. Obstructed fire-escape routes, the lack of fire doors, security guards and owners' corporations did the rest, not to mention the problematical fire safety of flats subdivided into cubicles.

Less than six months ago illegally partitioned flats were blamed for blocking fire escapes after a fire in a tenement block in To Kwa Wan killed four including a pregnant woman.

A high property market has fuelled a demand for affordable living space. Investors have turned a profit from it by subdividing flats into cubicles. Having failed to address a growing income gap or low-cost housing needs, the least the government can do now is ensure that subdivided flats comply with basic building- and fire-safety standards. Inspections and enforcement, stepped up after the To Kwa Wan blaze, must be intensified. Meanwhile, Fa Yuen Street stallholders have anticipated the government's response by agreeing to remove all goods from their stalls overnight and abide by rules that there be 1.5 metres between them. They will also hire nightwatchmen and roll up their awnings. If this does not forestall a requirement to dismantle their stalls every night as well, the expense and/or additional heavy work could force some out of business. That would be a loss to what is left of Hong Kong's vibrant street culture. But public safety is paramount. The government could enhance it, however, by enforcing its own rules.