Street performers accused of bringing chaos to Mong Kok pedestrian zone

Mong Kok road attracts musicians, actors activists and salespeople. But those working and living nearby have had enough of the noise

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 6:09am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 7:13am

Mong Kok's jammed pedestrian precinct is descending into chaos due to a proliferation of street performers, people living and working nearby say.

The performers - as well as political activists and people promoting internet or mobile phone services - are busting noise limits and blocking the flow of pedestrians in Sai Yeung Choi Street South, locals say.

The situation has prompted the Yau Tsim Mong District Council to ask the Home Affairs Department to launch a consultation on reducing the days on which the street is closed to traffic. The number of hours it is closed for has already been cut.

At present, the street is closed to vehicles from 4pm to 10pm from Monday to Saturday and from noon to 10pm on Sundays and public holidays. The department, with the help of students from Shue Yan University, is consulting the public on three options: keeping the status quo; restricting pedestrianisation to Fridays and Saturdays or restricting it to Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays.

But Yau Tsim Mong district councillor Chris Ip Ngo-tung said the problem was not just the hours; the law was limited when it came to restricting performances and promotional activities on the streets.

While the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department's inspectors can act against illegal hawkers under the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance, "promotional activities could hardly be considered businesses like hawkers as there are no trades nor cash transactions involved," Ip said.

"Other than that, music performers, actors on talent shows or even members of political parties are free to use the streets," he said, describing it as "a form of freedom of expression".

On a recent Saturday evening, some 300 posters promoting internet or phone services went up as soon as the street closed at 4pm. The salespeople block the flow of pedestrians.

Ip said inspectors could only remove one of the promotional posters 24 hours after a warning had been issued.

"It is very unlikely the streets can be cleared of these posters, as promoters would simply move their posters to another place on the street to continue their promotion once they got complaints," Ip said. "They could not be charged once they have moved."

A couple of hours later, four or five bands take their places along the street. Each has a full set of microphones and speakers, and a smartphone app used by a South China Morning Post reporter records sound levels of between 94.6 decibels and 102 decibels. Noise levels should be below 70 decibels in urban areas, according to guidelines set down by the Environmental Protection Department in 1997.

Prolonged exposure to louder noise could cause hearing and sleep problems, it said.

By 8pm, some 300 pedestrians have crowded around to enjoy the performance of one of the bands.

Members of the People's Power political party give speeches and Falun Gong practitioners add to the tumult with large posters.

Yau Tsim Mong District Council has attempted to address neighbours' concerns about nuisance and persuaded the Transport Department to shorten the hours of pedestrian access.

When it opened in 2000, the pedestrian section operated from 4pm to midnight from Mondays to Saturdays. It closed at 11pm from 2010 and, from July last year, the closing time was brought forward to 10pm.

The Transport Department says up to 20,000 pedestrians use the street each hour, adding that "insufficient road space to accommodate both vehicular traffic and pedestrians" is the main reason for the pedestrianisation.

Ricky Chan Chau-ming has run his Brighter Optical Centre store on Sai Yeung Choi Street South for more than two decades. As music from street performers blares outside the shop, he complains that customers are being driven away. "Our staff can't even talk to them properly," he bemoans.

"The street performers are using the street without paying a penny, but please consider us, who pay a lot in rent," said Chan, pointing out that the pedestrian scheme was originally designed to prevent shoppers from straying into traffic, not to allow others to use the street.

Polly Kwan Kit-man, 61, has lived in the area for more than 40 years, but says the noise in her family's seventh-floor flat on the corner of Sai Yeung Choi Street South and Soy Street is getting worse.

"My five-year-old granddaughter found it hard to concentrate on her homework and many of our family members find it hard to sleep deeply at night" Kwan says. "I have reported [the noise] to the police on several occasions, but the bands resumed their performances and noise shortly after the police left."

But performers hope the music can go on.

"I have been singing here for two years and have drawn a large group of loyal supporters," says Lam Fat, 57, of band 3L. "They love my music and I like singing for them."