A new action group plans to change the face of hawking in the city and at the same time help threatened vendors.
The group of designers, artists, academics and activists, called the Street Design Union, or SDU, wants to design better street markets.
'We want to improve the hawkers' business, improve the street market environment and maintain the social and cultural value of markets,' said Chan Ka-hing, chairman of the Hong Kong Design Community.
Hawkers are under increasing pressure from the authorities in the wake of the deadly blaze in Fa Yuen Street market, Mong Kok, late last year that claimed nine lives. Soon after the fire, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department put forward a series of proposals and ordered stallholders to remove awnings and reduce their stock.
And last week the government launched a series of proposed changes to the way markets operate. Proposals include forcing hawkers to dismantle stalls at night, installing sprinkler systems, moving stalls away from building entrances, relocating street markets away from residential areas and asking hawkers to voluntarily surrender their licences to reduce the size of street markets.
Public consultation on the proposals will run until May 7.
One problem holding the SDU back from its goal is the lack of policy. 'The government needs to have a clear hawker policy,' Chan said. 'If it does not, no matter what designers try, it won't be functional.'
Hong Kong's hawker policy dates back to the 1970s, when the city had up to 50,000 unregulated vendors. The government introduced a licensing system and took other measures to reduce this number. It worked: today there are 7,500 licensed and 3,000 unlicensed hawkers compared with at total of 47,000 in 1984.
Hawkers at street markets are now given room for a 91cm-by-122cm booth and 46cm of extra space to sell their goods. But they complain this is too small to display many goods, so they often come into conflict with hawker control officers, who fine them if their products are obstructing the public.
Inspectors also object to how hawkers customise stalls, such as by installing metal awnings and umbrellas to protect them from the sun and rain.
But standards around the city vary, said Chan, who spoke with hawkers about their concerns.
Flower merchants, newspaper vendors and vegetable sellers interviewed in Mong Kok and Central say enforcement is arbitrary and inconsistent. One hawker operating near the Mong Kok flower market said he often received fines for obstructing the pavement, but other merchants who did the same thing were overlooked by inspectors.
'The worst thing is that the inspector on the morning shift says one thing and the person on the afternoon shift says another,' said Dr Leung Chi-yuen, of Polytechnic University's department of applied social sciences, who studied the working conditions of hawkers.
The SDU asked the department to clarify the exact rules to which hawkers are subjected, but received no response. The department did not answer the Post's questions about market stall specifications.
Last year, after consulting street hawkers, the Urban Renewal Authority introduced a range of new stall designs for nine merchants displaced by redevelopment work in Graham Street in Central. The metal booths feature shelves and racks that fold outwards, giving their occupants more selling space during the day.
But hawkers say inspectors have taken issue with the new stalls, preventing them from fully extending the racks, which exceed the 46cm allotment. 'The new stall works for me, but the space we have around it is still too small,' said the owner of Yee Kee, a vegetable stall in one of the new URA booths. 'I've had to cut back on my selection to avoid trouble with the inspectors. Now I'm losing customers.'
If the department confirms its specifications for the size, height and function of market stalls, the SDU plans to launch a design competition and exhibition for stall designs.
'They wouldn't necessarily be functional - many would be conceptual,' said artist Kacey Wong, an assistant professor at PolyU's school of design. 'It's a way to get people to think about what street markets could be.'