My Take

Let's open up our streets to enterprise

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 February, 2013, 4:14am

Safety, hygiene and anti-triad crime prevention. In the name of these goals, the government, since the 1990s, has systematically chased away hawkers and made our streets safe for brand-name shops and luxury shopping malls.

I am not one to believe in conspiracy theories of collusion between the government and the big property boys - that in secret meetings replete with cognac and cigars they plotted to take over Hong Kong and milk us dry.

But the end results of years of myopic government policy are the same. The economic benefits were taken away from free-wheeling hawkers and have accrued to rent-seeking landlords and developers, and shopping chains.

This is a difficult, multifaceted issue. And the government's rationale was not unreasonable as we modernised to first-world status. But in our drive for modernity, wealth and cleanliness, we have rid our city of character and individuality. The huge influx of mainland visitors and buyers has amplified these tendencies.

Times have changed. There is now growing public pressure - including from respected cultural critic Chan Wan - to force our bureaucrats, by definition bound by inertia, to reform anti-hawker laws and welcome them back.

Each year, we witness great entrepreneurial spirit during the Lunar New Year at the Victoria Park fair and flea markets in places like Sham Shui Po, Mong Kok and Cheung Sha Wan. Young people and seasoned operators exploit the opportunity to make money. Imagine if they could show their business talent all year round.

Locals and tourists alike are nostalgic for old Hong Kong. High rents make it tough or impossible to rent a shop and start a business. It is up to the government to promote and encourage a hawker business for the 21st century.

By relaxing requirements for hawker licences and allotting suitable areas - through better traffic control and more pedestrian-only roads - it should not be difficult to create vibrant, low-cost markets. Instead of bulldozing everything to make way for glitzy malls, we could revitalise the city's older districts.

Through cleverer, not tougher regulations, more people should be able to start a business from the ground up, literally at street level, without compromising safety, hygiene and public order.