Lunar New Year

Riot or not, Hong Kong street food hawkers set up shop in Mong Kok again for Lunar New Year

Veterans of the trade claim high rents force them to defy local authorities

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 January, 2017, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 January, 2017, 4:59pm

For many, the Lunar New Year is a time for family reunion. But for some Hongkongers, the holiday has been spent the last few decades hawking in Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po.

As these hawkers are unlicensed, they are constantly on tenterhooks – and on the run – worrying about being arrested for illegally selling street food.

Excitement for this year’s festivities has been muted by vivid memories of the Mong Kok riot last year.

Hours into the first day of the Year of the Monkey, protesters hurled bricks, set fires and clashed with police, leaving over 100 officers injured.

Radical localists alleged the riot began as a protest against a crackdown on illegal street food hawkers, but health minister Dr Ko Wing-man countered that food safety inspectors were merely patrolling the area.

Hawkers Chan Chun-chuen and Tsang Kai-sun were in Mong Kok that night. Both men were operating away from the violence and not involved in the riot. Yet the unrest left them shaken.

“I feel quite regretful that this happened with many people injured,” Chan said.

“We hawkers do not want such things to happen. We just want to make a living.”

Chan, 63, operates two stores selling cart noodles – one in Tai Kok Tsui, the other in Sham Shui Po – and said the high rents meant he was not earning a lot and needed to take to the streets to sell his food.

“Actually we don’t earn that much from hawking during lunar new year periods, but for those of us who are not that well off, the money we collect from our sales is what we need to get through the festive period as we need to hand out red packets,” he said.

And it was not just about the money, he claimed.

A year on, Mong Kok riot leaves lessons and scars for Hong Kong police and activists alike

Chan, a veteran hawker who has sold food to passers-by between Sham Shui Po and Yau Ma Tei since the 1970s, said he sought to immerse himself annually in the “festive spirit” despite the hard work required.

“During the holidays, a lot of stores are closed,” he explained. “People like to come to patronise hawkers.”

The sight of many people coming to enjoy the food and supporting them, he added, was fulfilling and triggered a nostalgia similar to “meeting your family after a long time”.

Fellow veteran hawker Tsang, known to many as “the king of rice rolls”, agreed, adding that gathering with other hawkers felt like a “reunion dinner”.

Tsang, 58, used to sell rice rolls at the now-defunct Kweilin Street night market in the 1980s. He recalled a scene of 40 to 50 hawkers back then.

But with the government intensifying its monitoring of hawkers’ activities, many have given up the business, he said, noting even he called it quits for a time in 1997.

However, Lunar New Year offered a rare opportunity for the old tradesmen to meet.

“Even if we have to constantly be on the run from the Food and Environment Hygiene officers, it’s worth it,” he said.

Tsang said he was fortunate to save some money with the help of investors and open a store in 2015.

As for what happened in Mong Kok a year ago, Chan blamed the Food and Environment Health department for being too strict. He said protesters who went to support the hawkers were infuriated by the presence of inspectors on a day traditionally spent enjoying street food.

He added, however, that he thought localists had appropriated hawkers to advance their own political agenda against the authorities.

Both men were hoping the government this year would be able to look the other way and permit hawkers and passers-by to enjoy the street festivities for the brief public holiday period.

Recently, Ko said food officials had always taken a “highly tolerant attitude” towards illegal hawkers.

But he said the department would take a tougher stance against hawkers if they used an open flame or boiled oil in congested areas.

The health chief said that in view of what happened last year, relevant authorities had come up with pre-emptive measures, but he did not elaborate. Meanwhile, officials had discussed how to reduce public safety concerns occasioned by illegal hawking or law enforcement in crowded places, he added.

Chan and Tsang both rejected the notion that open flames and boiling oil were hazardous and claimed the practices would not be an issue if hawkers were not forced to stay on the move.

The government earlier proposed setting up a food bazaar for hawkers during lunar new year periods by Macpherson Playground, but the Yau Tsim Mong district council shot down the plan.

The two men were also not keen on the idea, anticipating high rents.

While they expressed worry the government might adopt a more stringent approach in Mong Kok this year, they remained committed to setting up stalls there.

“Only wealthy people can go for holidays during the festive period, but going to hawkers to enjoy good food is a form of enjoyment accessible to everyone, even for poor people,” Tsang said.

He added that seeing people clutching “a stick of fish balls in one hand, while trying to have some siu mai and rice rolls” made him very happy.