Why Are the Chinese New Year Hawkers Worth Rioting Over?
They’re not worth rioting over. But they are worth protecting.
The government has been cracking down on the city’s hawkers for 40 years, which is why Hong Kong doesn’t have the vibrant street food culture of Bangkok or Singapore. Fears about cleanliness and overcrowding led the government to stop issuing new hawker licenses in the 1970s, while also imposing strict restrictions on passing them on: Legal street hawkers can only pass on their licenses through their families. As a result, the number of hawker licenses has tumbled from around 50,000 in 1974 to just 6,000 today.
What happens when you take a step like that? Hongkongers will find a way around it. Illegal hawkers set up where they could, and they would engage in what was called jau gwei: “running from ghosts.” This was the warning cry that went up when the Hawker Control Teams were seen approaching, most of whom were gweilos, back in the day.
The Chinese New Year street hawkers originally appeared because shops and cha chaan tengs closed over Chinese New Year, so the stalls increased to meet demand. The Kweilin Street Night Market in Sham Shui Po has always been a hotspot. The hawkers of Kweilin Street mostly sell clothes and bric-a-brac. But the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department normally takes Chinese New Year off, meaning that there are no pesky inspectors making the rounds and shutting down stalls that aren’t supposed to be there. An enterprising hawker could clean up—and so a tradition was born.
While the government’s cleanliness worries may have been valid, the restrictions on licensing have strangled the city’s snack culture. Dai pai dong street stalls are sadly a dying breed, sacrificed in the pursuit of cleaner food standards. The government’s plans to introduce food trucks might look good, but they’re not exactly accessible to the old granny selling dragon’s beard candy from a little Perspex stand.
Historically, many of Hong Kong’s hawkers were mainland immigrants, who’d fled to the city in search of a better life. Poor and disadvantaged, they became itinerant hawkers because overheads were low and they could pick up and follow the crowds to chase down their next sale. These hawkers who traveled across Hong Kong in search of profit are the perfect examples of the city’s “Lion Rock Spirit,” its drive to make a better life for itself. Shut that down, and you might as well shut down everything else.