Neighbourhood Sounds

Tin Shui Wai, where hawkers help brighten up grim lives

Residents of isolated satellite town defy the law to bring affordable goods and a spot of daily pleasure to some of the city's poorest people

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2012, 9:38am

Tin Shui Wai's name has a serene meaning: "town of sky and water". In reality, the sky is obscured by cookie cutter public housing blocks and water flows only in a drainage nullah.

But that waterway runs beside a pocket of neighbourly kindness in the northwestern New Territories satellite town. On its banks stand the dawn markets, where Tin Shui Wai's notoriously cash-strapped residents sell small amounts of fresh food and daily essentials.

These unauthorised markets have become a morning ritual for residents to mingle and gather, but they are illegal: none of the hawkers is licensed. At any moment, the hawkers are ready to jau gwei - slang for running away from officers of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, who are out to nab them.

"When the officers chase you, they sprint as fast as [Chinese Olympic hurdler] Liu Xiang ," hawker Liu Chiu-sum, a 62-year-old egg seller, told the South China Morning Post.

As many as 80 stalls spring up in this spot from 5am to 10am every day, then disappear without a trace whenever government officers appear. If arrested, hawkers face a penalty of about HK$450 and the loss of their stock. "When the officers attack, I just leave my goods and run," said Liu.

The market is an oasis in the isolated community, which has become notorious for its domestic violence, murders and suicides. The town is a figurative prison, rife with cross-generational poverty and geographically isolated: a round-trip bus ride to Central takes three hours and costs HK$42.80.

Social worker Thomas Kong Kin-shing of the Community Development Alliance explains why Tin Shui Wai - with 60 per cent of its 300,000 residents living in public housing - is different from other new towns born through the government's urban planning scheme. "Tin Shui Wai used to be farmland before it was developed, so there were no street-side, local-style stores," he said.

As a result, in the northern half of Tin Shui Wai - where the public housing estates are concentrated - daily necessities can be bought only in malls run by The Link Reit, the real estate investment trust that runs shopping malls on public housing estates all over the city.

The Link has been accused of squeezing out small businesses by pushing up rents, and stores in the mall are criticised for charging exorbitant prices due to the lack of competition.

The hawkers, therefore, offer an alternative to Tin Shui Wai's impoverished residents.

"We are breaking the monopoly," said Liu, who lives in a tenement overlooking the dawn market in Tin Yan Estate. But the constant fear of having to flee from hawker-control officers causes him emotional distress. "My heart is always unsettled," Liu said, breaking down in tears. "We just want to make a bit of money to put food on the table, but we are treated like thieves."

(SCMP video by Helene Franchineau)

Five years ago, 65-year-old Chinese-herb hawker Lo Kong-ching drowned when he jumped into the nullah to escape pursuing officers. After that the officers became less zealous.

Liu said when the officers stroll up to the market slowly the hawkers understand they must leave quickly.

"But you never know. When the officers start running like an arrow from different directions toward the market, then you know they're out to arrest people," he said. "Just a few days ago, they arrested four hawkers."

Last Saturday, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor made a surprise announcement that the government would establish a flea market to be run by the non-profit Tung Wah Group of Hospitals by next year. It will be on a separate plot of unused land near Tin Sau Road Park, 500 metres away from the nullah.

There will be 200 stalls charging proposed rents of HK$800 to HK$1,000, and this has drawn interest from residents beyond the dawn market hawkers.

Kong said a group of social workers had been pushing for the authorisation of the bank- side hawker market for the past three years.

He said working as a hawker, despite its stress, offered an attractive business opportunity: "Many people see being a hawker as offering upward mobility in society." At a time when labour laws do not ensure job security, working as a hawker was an entrepreneurial chance to break out of cross-generational poverty.

The hawker market is a ray of hope in the bleak neighbourhood once labelled a "city of sadness" - a term that came into circulation after a notorious tragedy in 2004 when an unemployed man, living in the Tin Heng Estate, killed his wife and two daughters before ending his own life.

Spurred on by this incident and the many cases of crime and domestic abuse being reported in the district, the authorities have since pledged more resources to improve the living conditions for Tin Shui Wai's beleaguered residents.

However, the town remains steeped in poverty and ennui, with many living on social welfare. The biting irony is that low-income residents must pay for expensive items in stores run by The Link. Liu calls it "the rich robbing the poor".

The social worker said many of the current hawkers were worried that the government had been using Yuen Long's Kam Sheung Road tourist flea market as a point of reference.

The alliance is demanding the residents be a part of the planning for Tung Wah's authorised market. "We don't need a market selling jewellery and accessories to tourists. We need one that sells cheap daily essentials to locals," Kong said.

District councillor Luk Chung-hung adds: "Having an authorised hawker market will mean residents can work in jobs other than as a waiter, janitor or security guard... It's worth noting that 91 per cent of Yuen Long district residents are employed in jobs outside the district, so a hawker market means creating jobs in the neighbourhood."

Most of the hawkers are housewives, who are earning a bit of extra cash to support their working husbands. A 47-year-old mother of three, who goes by the name of "Big Sister Ping", said she sells children's clothes to support her husband, who is a construction worker.

"The timing is flexible, I drop my children off at school and come straight to the market," said Ping, who migrated from the mainland in 2008 to join her family.

"But it's not just about making money, it's about the friendships I've made," said the effervescent woman. "I befriended one of my female customers one time, and she shared with me that her husband had been cheating on her with another woman."

The customer disclosed to Ping that she was planning to throw acid at the other woman. Ping and a few friends sat her down and successfully talked her out of it.

As she chats with the Post, a woman customer walks past and shouts: "Big Sister Ping, you're dressed nice today. If I was a man, I'd hit on you." She chuckles, and replies humbly: "This top was only HK$30."

Ping's life now is a far cry from her former career as a primary-school teacher on the mainland. "When friends back home ask me if it's really that miserable in Hong Kong that I have to be a hawker and dodge officers, I tell them no, because of all the friends I've made.

"I also don't know what else to do to kill time. Unlike other women, I don't like to play mahjong."

And even as she tells of how the hawker-officer chases leave her shaken for days, her exuberant smile reveals her determination to find serenity in the town of sky and water.

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