Hong Kong hawkers stifled by government red tape demand change

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 December, 2014, 10:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 December, 2014, 10:31am

Tin Sau Bazaar was a well-intentioned venture. The government opened the hawkers' market early last year to accommodate unlicensed vendors in the area and give poor residents in Tin Shui Wai an avenue to make some extra income.

But it has been more of a calamity for people such as Lai Tai-ho, one of 70 hawkers relocated to the bazaar after officials shut down an informal dawn (tin kwong) market that had been operating nearby.

Lai, a Tin Shui Wai resident, had been selling dried seafood at the dawn market for six years and made about HK$13,000 each month, just enough to support her family. With little shade around, the new bazaar is a sizzling place in the summer, and customers who come by are always drenched in sweat, she says.

"Business has been so poor in the summer I took in just HK$2,000 a month."

About a third of stalls remained vacant for much of the time, so the bazaar offered limited choice, Lai adds.

"There used to be vegetable sellers. But because meat isn't sold here, people don't come to buy food, so even they are gone now."

Many vendors, mostly mothers with children or individuals with other side gigs, found it difficult to meet the requirement that stalls be opened at least eight hours a day, 20 days a month.

A spokesman for the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals charity - which manages the site - says they have since introduced a mechanism to enable stall operators to seek leave or help. It has also carried out some refurbishments and occupancy has since risen to more than 80 per cent.

Learning from the Tin Sau Bazaar experience is important as the government considers issuing new hawkers' licences for the first time in four decades.

Given community support for street vendors, the benefit to low-income residents and their appeal to tourists, officials say they are open to suggestions for setting up hawker markets at suitable locations.

In recent years, welfare groups have applied to hold temporary bazaars as a way to help poor families generate more income, but their efforts are often thwarted as officials give them the bureaucratic runaround.

Athena Wong Wing-chi, a social worker with the Tin Shui Wai Community Development Alliance, recalls how their application in 2012 was referred from the Lands Department to Home Affairs and then Food and Environmental Hygiene.

That was when the group discovered that they had to secure a fire safety and public entertainment licence to host a bazaar, Wong says.

And to use public parks and pitches, they would then apply to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

Hawker bazaars are an organic activity which should start from the bottom up instead of the other way round like Tin Sau
Edward Yiu, associate professor of geography and resource management at Chinese University

The alliance eventually secured approval to stage two temporary bazaars at a vacant plot between housing developments. Both events, which attracted about 80 stalls, were well received in the community; nevertheless further applications to use the site were rejected.

At the Tung Chung Community Development Alliance, social worker Chiu Sin-ting reports similar hurdles in organising bazaars to help poor families.

"We help residents secure a temporary hawking licence, which lasts only three months. Moreover, each NGO can only make two applications per year. Each bazaar can last no more than two weeks. All these restrictions create lots of difficulties."

Wong reckons the problem is that officials tend to view hawkers' bazaars as a sanitation and safety issue and fail to see the economic benefits that they bring to grassroots residents.

"Many residents stop accepting public welfare after they take up hawking. Many people are casual workers because job opportunities in Tin Shui Wai are insufficient. Part-time hawking by such workers or housewives can help supplement household income," Wong says.

"Hawker bazaars also serve as a focal point for social activity. Residents meet other people there and get introductions for jobs like newspaper delivery and leaflet distribution."

However, previous government interventions in the running of such community markets have tended to end in failure, says Edward Yiu Chung-yim, an associate professor of geography and resource management at Chinese University.

Yiu, who conducted a joint study with Polytechnic University last year on the city's bazaar culture, cites examples such as the "dragon market" in Wong Tai Sin.

Initiated in 2003 as a poverty alleviation venture, the market was run by NGOs and attracted four million visitors in the first two months alone. The high volume of foot traffic, however, prompted the government to demand a one-time payment of HK$500,000 from the operator, which led to the closing of the market later, Yiu says.

"Hawker bazaars are an organic activity which should start from the bottom up instead of the other way round like Tin Sau," says Yiu. "Each district has its unique characteristics. As long as hygiene and safety standards are observed, residents and sellers should be free to operate the bazaars. Appointing an inflexible administrator who does not know much about local conditions is bound to fail."

Yiu cites the now-defunct Luen Wo Hui in Sheung Shui as a successful bazaar that grew organically. In 1949, residents there put up HK$250,000 to form a company and negotiated with government for the use of a site. At its peak, the market had more than 300 stalls, which paid a percentage of their turnover to the administrator.

"Future bazaars should also adopt this model," he says.

Street vendors contributed a lot to the liveliness and colour of Hong Kong in the 1970s, when there were about 40 hawker bazaars. A licensing system was introduced to maintain health and sanitation standards but continued concerns over safety in crowded place led the government to stop issuing hawker licences in 1973.

As ageing licence holders retired or their families gave up their businesses, the numbers declined from 50,000 licensed hawkers in 1974 to about 6,000 today.

As Chiu sees it, public policy over the years has served to concentrate retail activity in sanitised malls. "The government no longer builds wet markets. And by obstructing people from hawking and staging bazaars, shoppers' choices are restricted to supermarkets or malls under Link Reit."

Unlicensed street markets continue to survive in pockets across the city. A night market operates on Pei Ho Street in Sham Shui Po until midnight, while a dawn market runs from 5am to 7am on Nam Cheong Street. Others are found in Mut Wah Street in Kwun Tong and Bulkeley Street in Hung Hom.

But they are pale shadows of the lively street markets of the past, Chiu says.

There used to be more than 120 stalls selling second-hand or cheap household items on Ki Lung Street. But constant crackdowns by Food and Environmental Hygiene officials have badly affected hawkers, many of them workers seeking to supplement a meagre income.

Tang Siu-ling, a cleaner, is among those hurt by the crackdowns. The three hours she spends cleaning offices daily brings in HK$2,000 per month, while her husband gets irregular income doing odd jobs on construction sites, but rent for their public housing flat is more than HK$2,000.

To supplement their earnings, she sold second-hand toys, shoes and other items at Sham Shui Po nightly.

"I used to earn about HK$200 from hawking, which made big difference to my life," Tang says. There are many poor people in Sham Shui Po. While the goods might be dirt-cheap, poor people buy them."

But with the crackdowns, she has been forced to reduce her hawking from 20 nights to just four a month.

In Tin Shui Wai, Lai was arrested four times at the dawn market. Each time, she was fined HK$500 and had a third of her goods confiscated - a loss of several thousand dollars that she could ill afford.

"I hope that the government can reissue hawking licences so that I can leave Tin Sau bazaar and sell somewhere else."

Frederick Fung Kin-kee, who sits on the Legco panel on poverty, recently visited Japan and Taiwan to see how they developed their street economy. He says Hong Kong could learn from their experience.

"In Hong Kong, places like Ladies Street are far and few between. But in Japan, there are 10,000 such streets, all with different characteristics. It's part of their community effort to revitalise old districts. In Taipei, a 3km space around a big temple popular with worshippers is designated as a bazaar area for all kinds of itinerant hawkers or fixed-pitch vendors."

While a balance should be struck between limiting neighbourhood disturbance and allowing street vendors to make a living, he says, the government should explore more avenues to enable the working class take up small businesses. "If vendors observe rules regarding noise, hygiene and safety, they should be allowed to operate. Such small businesses can help them put food on the table."