It’s not for everyone, but Mong Kok is the real, raw and raunchy side of Hong Kong culture we should be fighting to preserve
Noisy, congested, polluted, vibrant, creative and colourful, our city is all these things and the government must protect our heritage, not turn us into another cookie-cutter metropolis with chain stores and bland malls
Hong Kong is a noisy, congested and polluted place, but it is also one of the most beloved cities in the world, and Mong Kok is a microcosm of this buzzing metropolis.
Sadly, the decision to close one of the area’s most vibrant and colourful streets – the pedestrian zone of Sai Yeung Choi Street South – was welcomed by plenty of people.
The notoriously loud street, which is free of cars during weekends and public holidays, has grown to become a hugely popular venue for performers for the past 18 years.
The initial idea to pedestrianise was to boost commerce by increasing foot traffic.
However, a lack of rules and operational structure has plunged the area into a fierce battleground for vigorous street performers, who were often accompanied by enormous speakers. This caused unbearable noise disturbance to residents and businesses nearby, while the sheer number of people who came to experience the sights and sounds inevitably raised safety concerns. Last year, police received more than 1,200 complaints from the area’s fed-up residents.
This drastic decision to close completely seems rather typical of our officials. When things go south, or fail to keep up with the blistering pace of the city’s modern development, instead of finding solutions, they would rather erase the problem or dissociate themselves from the issues in question.
Lee Tung Street in Wan Chai – known as “Wedding Card Street” – has been turned into a luxury shopping development. In 2016, the Urban Renewal Authority evicted residents of the 600-year-old Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen, the last walled village in Kowloon, to make way for more profitable developments.
I am not a big fan of Mong Kok, but I can see that it has a peculiar attractiveness. This buzzing shopping area has a sense of rawness and honesty about it. It’s where you can see and feel how real Hongkongers live. There are mahjong schools, bars, nightclubs, brothels, massage parlours, and local eateries such as cha chaan teng. The beauty of Mong Kok is that it doesn’t carry its identity like a badge of shame, but rather a shining symbol of pride for all to see.
Mong Kok has even made its way into the Urban Dictionary as an abbreviated adjective, MK, to describe a subculture that has grown out of the area, distinguished for its non-traditional, rough and local punk style and behaviours, comparable to that of Harajuku in Tokyo.
With its high population density of 130,000 people per sq km, it once entered Guinness World Records as the busiest district in the world.
Sai Yeung Choi Street South certainly sticks out like a sore thumb as one of the rowdier and raunchier sections in the area, with roadside performances adding immense vibe and colour to the overall street culture.
Sometimes, we have people who talk loudly on the phone in restaurants. Some of these establishments have rules to ban the use of mobile phones on their premises, or set up quiet rooms for patrons who choose to dine in a phone-free zone. Therefore, there is no need to confiscate customers’ phones as sensible restaurant operators prefer to opt for less extreme solutions that minimise disturbances and unnecessary conflict.
The noise pollution on Sai Yeung Choi Street South has persisted for years, but the government has chosen an approach of avoidance instead of tackling it head-on. All it should have done was introduce strict regulations on street performances, and adopt an uncompromising attitude to impose tough noise restrictions, such as a reasonable curfew.
Some of the performers have also demanded stricter regulations because they don’t want to lose the venue for the sake of the artists, audience and all parties concerned.
As a city, we are running out of interesting tourist attractions, especially those that are quirky and offbeat and uniquely Hong Kong. Most of our shopping streets are packed full of the same chain stores and international boutiques, and don’t offer a vast variety of smaller, unique local stalls and malls any more.
Fortunately, we still have Mong Kok, which shows the power of imperfection and lets its unpretentious beauty shine through the Temple Street Night Market, Flower Market, the computer arcades and more importantly its unstoppable street culture, both visual and live, that forms a significant part of our city’s identity.
The government must work harder to find a solution between revitalising the city and preserving its culture. Simply put, we must not let anyone take our urban culture away, and must preserve the communities, people and artists who thrive there. Every street counts.
Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post