Hopes of revival for dying trade of street hawking in Hong Kong
The government may be reversing its stance on killing off the city's once ubiquitous hawkers
"What d'ya want, sir? Cup of yin yeung? Coooooomin' up!"
Tucked between high-rise offices of multinational companies in Central, the hawkers of Stanley Street serve steaming cups of Hong Kong-style milk tea to early rising workers. Business picks up at lunchtime, when their kitchens dish out plates of hot rice topped with wok-tossed meat. For dinner, beer glasses clink as Cantonese dishes are set on roadside tables.
There are just a handful of these stalls now, hawker Wily Chan Chiu-wah says. Decades ago, the street was filled with stalls and customers.
"It's almost all gone now ... We're the lucky ones already," says Chan, tossing rice and egg in a huge wok. He scoops the fried rice onto a plate and wipes his brow with a towel.
Hong Kong hawking - an age-old practice of selling cheap food and wares from stalls and street carts - is going the way of horse-drawn carts and century-old buildings. Worried about hygiene and street congestion, city officials took steps in the 1970s to limit the practice.
The rules - a ban on new licences and severe limits on their transfers - have shrunk the number of legal hawkers in Hong Kong from 50,000 in 1974 to just about 6,000 today. Last year, the city started a programme to buy back licences, further shrinking the numbers.
With many licence holders in their 60s and no new licences to foster this form of commerce, hawking - together with all its tourist charms and economic benefits for the lower classes - could die out in another 50 years if government policies do not change, says Yip Po-lam, convenor of a grass-roots concern group for hawkers.
Perhaps realising this, the city has begun exploring changes to policies, according to a Food and Health Bureau official who spoke on condition of anonymity. A bureau spokesman said the government recognised the cultural significance of hawking and was not trying to kill it off.
But the government needs to move quickly, Yip says.
"We see many overseas places - Japan, Korea, Singapore - that have kept them for a reason," says Yip, who has spoken up for hawkers at Legislative Council meetings. "Supermarkets, which are owned by large corporations, will soon become the only choice [for shoppers]. If you see the issue from the point of view of poverty alleviation, culture and tourism or the local economy, then you should grow [the practice of hawking]."
Hawking has been an economic lifeline for generations of workers. It has allowed poor and often uneducated people to earn a living on their own, without having to incur the expense of finding and maintaining a permanent storefront. Stalls offer convenient foodstuffs and household items, often at prices affordable to the working class, while feeding the new generation of office workers looking for cheap eats.
"The government needs to see that this has been a cultural fixture of Hong Kong life for the past half-century," says long-time hawker Chan Kai-tai, who sells fresh fruit from a cart. "This is it. This is where the locals, the poorer folks, the working folks buy their daily necessities."
After the second world war, hawking became an affordable way of making a living in poor, crumbling Hong Kong as hawkers did not need to rent a shop or obtain a licence to operate. The Hawkers Association estimates that there were more than 70,000 such sellers in the city in 1946, with many "having engaged in the business before the war and have had long residence in the colony".
But by the 1970s, the city was concerned that areas dense with hawking could pose sanitation and safety hazards. The British government soon realised that the trade needed to be regulated, and enforced a licensing system.
In 1971, the city had 39,033 licensed hawkers, with another 6,000 illegal sellers, according to the now-defunct Urban Council. In addition, there were 40 hawker bazaars in 1972. By 1974, town planning documents showed there were 49,310 daytime stalls in business areas around the city. There were 150 stalls for every 10,000 people, with most stalls in high-density, low-income districts. City officials believed there were many more hawkers who were operating despite not having licences.
Documents from the Urban Council show that the city made hawker policies stricter because by the 1970s, hawking was no longer being viewed as a welfare activity, but a commercial one - and officials were worried that it would draw more to selling if the city did not start to tighten its policies.
"For residents living nearby, on-street hawking activities might cause obstruction, environmental nuisance or even hazards relating to hygiene and fire risks," according to a government paper issued in April.
"Shopkeepers in commercial premises nearby might consider on-street hawking activities an unfair competition with the businesses because hawkers do not have to pay rent," read another government-issued paper on hawker policies.
The government issued its last hawking licence in 1973. Annual licence fees ranged between HK$1,000 to HK$3,000 - depending on the size, location and type of stall or cart the hawker used. The size, height and structure of the licensed hawkers' stalls have been severely regulated by law, with sellers complaining of inspections being fickle and inconsistent. In addition, the city also established a hawker control unit to pursue illegal sellers.
Those policies have remained in place, largely unchanged. They were, however, relaxed slightly in 2009, when the government issued 61 new itinerant hawker ice-cream vendor licences.
Today, hawkers can be roughly divided into four types: fixed-pitch hawkers selling dry goods, cooked-food stalls, newspaper stalls and itinerant hawkers who push their carts from place to place.
Itinerant fruit hawker Chan, 65, who obtained his licence in 1972, says he has had to quit hawking for a while because of government inspectors.
"All that government talk about encouraging people to work and to work longer, yet here they are, stamping out our job," he says. "Many old colleagues gave up because the work was truly back-breaking, or because of government persecution."
Itinerant hawker licences became non-transferable; once a hawker retires, that licence is not re-issued. Fixed-pitch licences can be transferred once to a close relative such as a spouse or child.
Mong Kok hawker Chan Kong-chiu, who works on Fa Yuen Street, began his hawker life in 1977 as a jau gwai - an "on-the-run" illegal hawker. The 62-year-old clothes seller stayed with hawking, hoping like many others that he would eventually get the chance to "go legitimate". But it never happened for him. Now he works as an assistant to an elderly fixed-pitch hawker.
The truth is, many assistants are the real hawkers. By law, the licensee must be present at the stall for it to be open for business. But licence holders are often too old to work the streets all day, and some are not involved in the business at all. Some assistants have worked this way for decades, but cannot obtain their own operation licences.
"It's the business arrangement," says Chan, seated on a short ladder outside his stall, keeping an eye on a customer rummaging through his clothes pile. "Most of the licensees are too old to work. So we do the job for them as an assistant and receive a salary."
Yip, who has been fighting for hawkers' rights since 2011, says the lack of new hawker licences has fostered a licensing black market. In some cases, one person would rent a few stalls from licensees - often elderly people - and then sublease them at high prices, earning a profit, he says.
"No hawkers working nowadays will be willing to talk about the matter, probably because many of them are actually the ones renting these stalls," she says. "Those who want to become hawkers have no way of doing that legally."
The latest blow to the hawking trade came last year, when the government offered lump sums of HK$120,000 to those willing to surrender their hawking licences. More than 310 licences were forfeited in just a year. The aim was to reduce the crowds thronging tourist-heavy streets after a fire on the Fa Yuen Street market in 2011 that left nine people dead. But the move killed off hawker streets catering to the locals.
Yip criticised Hong Kong's city planning and spatial use. Instead of building a city full of luxury flats and office space, the government should save old neighbourhoods, perhaps designating space in new towns for markets, she says.
The Food and Health Bureau official says the government is considering issuing new hawking licences, given the wide community support hawkers have gained in recent years. It draws the line at itinerant hawkers, however. The government is open to suggestions of suitable locations for hawker markets, the official says, but it is extremely difficult to find such spots given Hong Kong's tight land issues and costly real estate.
Yip scoffs at the idea. "Land? It's impossible to find affordable commercial space," she says.
Once an itinerant seller, Chan Kwan-yick dragged his cart all over Hong Kong for more than 40 years. He traded clothes at first, before switching to selling cart noodles - Chinese noodles in soup with toppings that included braised turnip, pig's blood and various types of fish balls.
After multiple arrests that led to hefty fines, he obtained a licence that barred him from lawfully selling cooked food on the street. So he switched specialities once more.
Now 74 years old, Chan works daily from 10am to 11pm, health permitting, serving more than 30 types of snacks, including homemade boot jai go - bean and rice-flour puddings moulded in ceramic bowls - and sticky rice dumplings coated in coconut and sugar. He sells up to 450 bean jellies a day in the winter and up to 300 a day in summer.
Chan remains optimistic about hawking in Hong Kong.
"Yes, we'll shrink in numbers, but will we disappear altogether? I don't think so," he says.
"Even though there are no more licences, the illegal hawkers will be back.
"Without hawkers, society is quiet and empty."
Visit our interactive feature including videos of the hawkers: http://multimedia.scmp.com/hawkers/