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Traffic and road safety in Hong Kong

Mong Kok musicians silenced as council votes to take them off one of Hong Kong’s busiest and noisiest streets

Motion to terminate Sai Yeung Choi Street South pedestrian zone passes with 15 votes to one at Thursday afternoon session

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2018, 12:08pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2018, 11:33pm

It will be curtains for street performers after 18 years of raucous entertainment at one of Hong Kong’s busiest and most popular areas, after district councillors voted on Thursday to shut down a popular pedestrian zone in Mong Kok because of noise complaints.

While Sai Yeung Choi Street South has been hugely popular among buskers and other entertainers as well as tourists and local shoppers after it was pedestrianised to boost commerce, residents and business operators in the neighbourhood were up in arms over decibel levels and safety concerns, making more than 1,200 complaints last year.

The street was only car-free on weekends and public holidays until 10pm, after the hours were shortened three times between 2010 and 2013.

A motion to terminate the pedestrian zone was passed 15-1 by the Yau Tsim Mong District Council on Thursday.

Seven councillors from the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, who did not state their stance on the matter earlier, backed the motion. It was spearheaded by Business and Professionals Alliance member Chan Siu-tong, from the pro-government camp which dominates the council.

A second motion raised by Chan, which called for the government to seek alternative locations for a pedestrian zone for the promotion of arts and culture, was amended and passed by 16 votes.

Transport Department representative James Wong Wing-hing refused to say how long it would take for authorities to act on the council’s decision on Sai Yeung Choi Street, despite being pressed repeatedly by councillors.

It could take four months for the government to consult the public and gather the latest data on pedestrian and traffic flow in the area, Wong said.

In the meantime, he said, government departments would discuss the impact of scrapping the pedestrian zone.

The Transport Department later said it would follow up on the council’s decision “as soon as possible”, but did not offer a timetable.

The area in question has been a flashpoint for trouble in the past. In 2015, localists clashed with pro-Beijing groups on Sai Yueng Choi Street during a protest against street performers. And during the Lunar New Year in 2016 a government crackdown on unlicensed hawkers on nearby Portland Street sparked the Mong Kok riot.

Before the vote, Mong Kok police assistant district commander Martin Tsang Fan-kwok said the force received 1,276 complaints about the pedestrian zone last year.

Why Mong Kok’s street performers are not music to the ears

Officers issued 77 tickets, leading to 23 people being fined between HK$800 (US$100) and HK$1,500, while 54 were still awaiting trial, Tsang said.

Police would support any proposals to reduce noise and obstruction for pedestrians and residents, he added.

The three pro-democracy members of the council submitted a third motion calling for stricter government regulation of the area instead of ending the scheme permanently.

One of them, the Civic Party’s Andy Yu Tak-po, suggested the temporary closure of the pedestrian zone and the establishment of a licensing system for performers, which the council rejected.

Yu said the decision to scrap the pedestrian zone lacked vision.

“It seems that it will never be restarted,” he said.

He suggested the evicted street performers could move to other districts, and questioned whether councils in those areas would have to scrap their pedestrian zones as well.

Before the meeting, civic group Community March protested outside the Mong Kok Government Offices against reopening Sai Yeung Choi Street to traffic.

While most of the 120 Mong Kok residents the group interviewed were against the pedestrian zone, Community March spokesman Chu Kong-wai questioned whether termination was the only choice.

Some performers who were not so noisy would also be affected, Chu said.

Pedestrian zone proves tough sell to shopkeepers in Hong Kong business district

Regular street performer Kim Hung said his income would be affected, but not significantly.

“The councillors have decided and I can only accept it,” he said.

The 52-year-old, who has been performing in the area with his band, Hung Lok Goon, since 2004, said he would continue “as usual” until further government action, then look for other pedestrian zones to ply his trade in.

A telecoms salesman doing business in the pedestrian zone said he was willing to relocate along with the displaced street performers, as it was a matter of restoring peace to residents.

“I can set up shop somewhere else,” he said, adding that his own ears ring after weekend shifts.

A resident of Sai Yeung Choi Street South, surnamed Feng, welcomed the council’s decision.

His two sons were often distracted from doing their homework on weekends, Feng said, and when he personally watched performers, “only a handful” were actually good.

A self-proclaimed fan of the street performers, Peter Lok, opposed the decision to evict them. But Lok, who said he attended the council meeting as a representative of 14 groups of performers on Sai Yeung Choi Street South, conceded it was the result of performers not behaving themselves.

A survey commissioned by the Liberal Party found that performances on Sai Yeung Choi Street South on Saturday nights were as loud as 101.5 decibels. To put that into context, a rock concert typically reaches 108 decibels, a jet engine operates at about 120, and prolonged exposure to noise above 85 decibels is considered a health hazard.

Meanwhile, councillors from other districts were concerned that performers from Mong Kok might flood into other pedestrian zones, such as the ones in Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui and Central.

Wan Chai district councillor Clarisse Yeung Suet-ying said the scrapping of the pedestrian zone in Mong Kok reflected the government’s failure to properly regulate it.

“This is not to say ‘Not in my backyard’, but it will be a big problem if there is a lack of enforcement,” she said.

Yeung urged the government to set up a dedicated department to oversee all pedestrian zones, consult the public and advise performers.