The chaos of street markets is one of the reasons they are so appealing. Jumbles of stalls stacked high with an eclectic mix of goods, hawkers shouting for attention and crowds of shoppers seeking bargains make them worth preserving. But clutter does not rest easily with our orderly-minded government, especially in the wake of last year's fire in a tenement building behind the Fa Yuen Street market in Mong Kok that claimed nine lives. Overzealous inspectors and proposed new rules and regulations threaten an important facet of Hong Kong's cultural heritage.
It is still unclear what caused the fire. An electrical fault in the building was pinpointed by an investigation, but arson has not been ruled out. There is no doubt, though, that it spread quickly through stalls in the market due to the highly-flammable goods stored overnight in them. Safety is obviously paramount and preventing a repeat has to be a priority. But how that is done has to be carefully balanced against the need to preserve our unique way of life.
Authorities do not seem to have that balance right. Senior officials have in the past said that hawkers are out of step with our city's modern image, and policies are geared towards moving them off streets. The Fa Yuen Street fire last November would seem to have given an excuse to rush that agenda. Inspectors are getting stricter and a public consultation proposes a string of tough measures, which include relocating street markets away from residential areas and asking hawkers to voluntarily surrender their licences. Hawkers naturally feel that they are being unfairly targeted, while concern groups worry that markets could be sanitised or even vanish altogether.
A number of the suggestions make sense: installing sprinkler systems, ensuring that stalls do not block the entrances to buildings and enabling a smooth flow of pedestrian traffic. Our markets have to be safe, after all. But in assuring safety, we have to be careful not to destroy the character and charm that hawkers give our streets.