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Mong Kok riot

The tradition of New Year food hawkers, and why Hongkongers are so attached to them

For years food stalls were the only place to buy cooked food over the holiday, and generations grew up eating food such as fishballs from them, making street hawkers a cherished part of local culture

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 February, 2016, 4:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 February, 2016, 4:26pm

The spark for Monday night’s rioting in Mong Kok and a subsequent incident in Tuen Mun was government enforcement action against hawkers selling street food - a Chinese New Year tradition going back decades. We asked food writers about the history of the practice, Hongkongers’ attachment to street food and what they think will happen now.

Food and travel writer Chan Chun-wai, 45, fondly remembers eating food from hawkers who set up shop during the first three days of Chinese New Year.

Over 40 years ago food hawkers would set up during this period because many shops were closed. We didn’t have many convenience stores back then; the only stores that were open were the ones that sold Lunar New Year food items.

“At home there wouldn’t be much to eat except for those auspicious, expensive dishes like braised oysters, steamed fish and whole chicken,” Chan says. “So it was only around this time of year that my parents would let us kids out to eat street food. The hawkers would set up in an open area and bring out tables and stools. We’d get things like offal, braised fish balls with pig skin, and cart noodles and dine al fresco. This only happened for three days because restaurants would reopen on the fourth day.”

Chan adds not all street food hawkers were Chinese, recalling his first taste of satay was from Indonesian street stalls and pho from Vietnamese ones.

“Living in public housing estates we didn’t have much exposure to other cuisines, so for me it was my first time trying them. There were also many pancake stalls, and traditional candy and coconut wrap, where a honeycomb-shaped white wafer was dressed with sugar, shredded coconut, maltose and sesame and wrapped in a thin pancake,” he says.

There are fewer hawkers these days, given that the government stopped issuing new hawker licences in the early 1970s and started phasing out existing ones by prohibiting licence holders from selling them, meaning they could only be passed on within their families.

The authorities also began cracking down on illegal hawkers to safeguard hygiene and prevent nuisance reasons, according to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department website.

The government’s attempt to stop illegal hawking on Monday is not new. A night market at Peiho Street and Kweilin Street in Sham Shui Po used to be held during Chinese New Year, where hawkers not only sold snacks but also second-hand clothing and used electronic goods. During the Lunar New Year in 2013, the department closed down the night market relatively peacefully. Chan says this sparked a debate on whether hawkers, illegal or not should be allowed to operate during Chinese New Year. People were divided on the issue, as some enjoyed the opportunity to partake of nostalgic street food, while others disliked the mess and smell the food hawkers create.

“Previously the authorities weren’t so strict and hawkers could make a bit of money and made people happy,” says Chan. “But I don’t understand what happened on Monday evening. When you think about the big picture, what about people in the New Territories who set off fireworks? Why don’t people crack down on them? And the subdivided flats? And the giant piles of garbage left over from the New Year fair in Victoria Park? That’s the real problem. Why be so hardline on these hawkers? Did someone complain?

“When it comes to Chinese New Year, one has to be more sensitive in handling these issues because it has now blown up into a big incident that paints Hong Kong in a bad light.”

While the government has plans to introduce food trucks to the city, Chan thinks it would be better if it regulated street-food vending instead so it can continue. “To start a food truck you need at least HK$600,000. Not everyone has that money. When people fled China to Hong Kong, many started off selling food in street stalls. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. People who eat street food will also eat at high-end places like Amber and Caprice. They just want to eat good food.”

Charmaine Mok is a senior host at Little Adventures in Hong Kong who takes tourists on food tours to places like Sham Shui Po.

“We tell people about the history of street stalls and the visitors tell us they’re sad to see the practice of street food dying out. They ask us why the government is so against street food culture when it’s becoming so popular elsewhere and Hong Kong has such a great tradition of humble street food,” she says.

In the last year-and-a-half, Mok says, there seems have been zero tolerance for illegal food hawkers.

“Hongkongers feel this ‘fish ball revolution’ is not just about street food, it’s about losing their culture and, losing their culture is also about losing a part of their identity. And there’s not much of the culture left so they feel like they have to grapple onto whatever is left and hang onto it.”

Both she and Chan believe more Hongkongers will now make a conscious effort to support local street-food vendors. “It may create a movement as an outlet to push back,” says Mok.