When six dai pai dong vanished from Stanley and Gutzlaff streets in Central last year, fans of wok hei street food were worried that the cooked food stalls had disappeared for good.
Now they're back, shinier than ever after five months of renovations. With new gas lines, sewers and electric cables installed, the old green dai pai dong stalls have given way to custom-built stainless steel booths.
The Chinese characters for dai pai dong mean literally 'big licence-plate stall', referring to the size of these special restaurant licences. New regulations allows dai pai dong licences to be passed down to the owner's offspring, meaning that, for the first time since the 1970s, dai pai dong can outlive their licence holders.
But the owners of Hong Kong's traditional eateries are far from happy. They say the renovation process was hampered by red tape and bureaucratic indifference, leaving them penniless and angry.
'I'm very frustrated,' said the owner of the Yue Hing, a tea stall in Stanley Street, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Ah Fei. 'The government dropped the ball and now we're suffering because of it. It shouldn't have had to be like this.'
Problems arose soon after dai pai dong owners agreed to the renovation scheme last summer, said Lam King-wing, who runs the Shui Kee, a beef offal stall on Gutzlaff Street.
'At first they said they were going to find us sponsors,' he said. 'Of course you're going to say yes to that. But in the end, after we demolished our stalls, they said they couldn't find any.' He ended up having to pay HK$160,000 for a new stall. 'The other stalls on Stanley Street had to pay even more,' he said.
Despite being closed for months while the street was dug up to install the gas line, the dai pai dong were still charged rent by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), along with an annual HK$28,770 licence fee.
'They told us this was a heritage preservation project, and then they turn around and say that we're doing it on our own, it's entirely our responsibility,' said Ah Fei. 'We've lost income all these months, but we've kept paying rent. How does this make sense? We aren't getting one cent in compensation.'
Two stalls are still closed because a private construction project has blocked access to the new gas hook-ups, preventing them from opening on schedule.
Stall owners also complain that the government offered little support during the renovations and that its enforcement of guidelines seemed haphazard. Though the Stanley Street stalls were demolished on August 14, rules governing the renovations were not sent to the owners until October 7. The rules were later revised on December 15th.
'They tricked us,' said Ah Fei. 'They told us to demolish our old stalls in August but they didn't tell us the rules of the game until two months later. It's very unfair. We've lost a lot in the process - customers, peace of mind, time, money, everything.'
When Ah Fei was setting up his new stall this month, he said, he found an open well left by workers who had installed the gas lines. He warned the department someone could fall into it. 'They told me to cover it with a piece of wood,' he said. 'I'm worried that someone will hurt themselves and hold me liable.'
Even the newly-liberalised licence restrictions aren't as much of a benefit as they may seem.
Lam's family has owned the Shui Kee since the 1950s, and he has been working there for 60 years. The licence is held by his mother. 'But after me, that's it,' he said. 'There's no one to pass the licence on to.'
A departmental spokesman said the dai pai dong owners had given its staff no indication that they were upset. 'In the course of discussion, the licensees had not asked for any form of compensation and they were fully aware of the need to suspend their business temporarily and that all costs involved in the rebuilding and renovation of their owns stalls would be shouldered by them,' he said.
'In fact, the government has also shouldered the costs for laying water pipes, installing sewage discharge pits and road resurfacing.'
The renovation scheme marks a significant departure from the government's long-standing policy on dai pai dong, which has been to phase them out by preventing their licences being transferred.
The government stopped issuing new dai pai dong licences in 1956 and began buying back licences in 1983. Just 28 licensed dai pai dong remain in Hong Kong, mostly in Central and Sham Shui Po.
The new policy allowing licences to be transferred to the owners' children applies only to the 10 dai pai dong in Central, but not the 14 in Sham Shui Po.
'I don't see a reason to keep the presently very strict policy on dai pai dong,' said Central and Western District councillor Tanya Chan, who voted to ease licence restrictions in 2009.
'For hawkers and dai pai dong we should look at each licence carefully and have some flexibility.'
Others suggest going further and allowing new dai pai dong to open.
'The number of places where you can sit is quite limited and they're always quite full,' said Katty Law, founder of the Central and Western District Concern Group. 'It's the human face of Central. Having more dai pai dong would be even better.'
Dai pai dong owners say that, despite their headaches, they are happy their stalls have been allowed to remain for another generation.
'Dai pai dong are something special,' said Lam. 'Even if in the future I'm not able to do this any more, I would still want it to exist.'
Additional reporting by Laine Tam