Arrested for making HK$1, elderly cardboard seller wins hearts, minds and the all-clear
Public outcry over ‘merciless’ treatment of 75-year-old woman prompts officials’ U-turn
The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department on Monday bowed to pressure and dropped charges against a 75-year-old woman for selling cardboard without a hawker license following immense public outcry over her arrest.
The U-turn came after mounting calls – including a protest joined by 30 people on Sunday and a petition with over 15,000 signatures – to denounce what activists called the “merciless behaviour” of department officers.
In a written statement, the department said it had decided to withdraw the charges against the elderly woman, surnamed Chu, after consulting the Department of Justice and considering the woman’s background.
“The department will take appropriate law enforcement action to maintain environmental hygiene and to ensure that the public will be free from nuisances triggered by illegal hawking at key passages and unlicensed hawker blackspots,” it added.
On June 11 in Central, Chu, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and gastritis, was approached by six department officers and later charged for unlicensed hawking and obstruction of public places after she sold a piece of cardboard to a domestic helper for HK$1.
She said she was released on bail for HK$30, with only HK$34 in her purse.
“I am quite ill but haven’t seen a doctor,” Chu said after the news came. “I was really happy after the phone call [informing me about the drop of prosecution].
“I prepare to go to the doctor tomorrow. Now I am so much at ease.”
Chu said she would continue to collect and sell cardboard boxes for a living. She said she could make HK$300 to HK$500 per month.
“Thank you for the assistance [from the public],” Chu said.
But she rejected financial support.
“I’m afraid to receive help,” she said. “I wanted to do it on my own.”
Food and Health minister Dr Ko Wing-man said the bureau would work with the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to review the enforcement system.
“According to the law, the frontline colleagues have the responsibility to enforce the law, so the pressure will be on them,” Ko said. “We will review that under what conditions and how we can let the public see the frontline colleagues are rational and reasonable.”
Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong Pik-wan, chairwoman of the legislature’s panel on food safety and environmental hygiene, said the panel would invite government officials to attend a meeting to explore possible ways to prevent such incidents from happening again.
“We want to know whether frontline officers have gone through sufficient training and if they fully understand the circumstances under which they can exercise discretion,” she said.
The Civic Party, which initiated the petition, said the department owed Chu an apology. Barrister-turned-lawmaker Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, the party’s leader, recalled that former food and health minister Dr York Chow Yat-Ngok had once floated a principle guideline stipulating that officers should give a warning before taking action against any elderly hawkers. He added that it appeared officers had not followed this rule in the current case.
Last year, the department sparked anger for fining a 71-year-old cleaner HK$1,500 over the dumping of water on a Wan Chai street. Photos of the woman sobbing after the incident were circulated online. Authorities later withdrew the fine.
Additional reporting by Shirley Zhao and Danny Mok