The Chinese New Year holiday in recent years has seen the Kweilin Street night market in Hong Kong’s Sham Shui Po district emerge as a hotbed of commercial and social activity.
Hawkers pop up on the streets, selling local street foods such as curry fish balls, steam rice noodle rolls and stinky tofu that people enjoy late into the night during the festival. For the older generation, the scenes evoke nostalgia and bring back memories of a bygone era.
However, things might not be the same this year as four district councilors from the pro-establishment camp have urged authorities to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy on illegal hawkers during the CNY holiday next month.
Last week, Lau Pui-yuk, a councilor from Sham Shui Po, complained that illegal hawkers have created chaos, hygiene and illegal occupation problems in the district, as Apple Daily reported.
Another councilor Cheng Wing-shun said that it is lucky that no accident took place in the area before, as illegal hawkers cook with hot boiling oil in the streets. “Also, all the foods are without license. Where do the foods come from?” he asked.
Doing some illegal hawking during the CNY holiday is a way for people to earn some extra money for their families. Given this, legislative councilor Frederick Fung Kin-kee has suggested that authorities can go easy on their rules during the period.
The rise of the Kweilin Street night market signals the comeback of the hawkers and bazaar culture. Chiu Sin-ting, spokesperson of a group which supports bazaar culture, said the government’s negative attitude towards hawkers is prompting a backlash.
“It is not easy for grassroots families to start their own businesses nowadays. If they are jobless, one of the easiest way to earn income is to become a hawker. They have no choice but to defy the law,” said Chiu.
“Consumers and shoppers miss the night markets and bazaars too. They can only shop in the shopping malls which are managed by big property developers or The Link now. So people would flock into the night markets if they have a chance,” Apple Daily quoted her saying.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the hawker economy played an important role in Hong Kong society. But the government decided to get rid of hawkers because of hygiene, sanitation and other issues.
Critics say hawker markets and bazaars do not necessarily mean chaos and filth. The markets can turn into tourist spots if regulated and managed properly, they point out. Some members of the public have started discussing the possibility of regularizing the Kweilin Street night market, just like the Shilin Night Market in Taipei and the hawker centers in Singapore.
Singapore government started to ban street hawkers in 1971. It later realized that there is a need for hawkers to exist, as the industry has provided lot of work opportunities, which is important for a stable society.
To solve the hygiene problem, the government built food bazaars and grouped the hawkers into the buildings. The buildings are managed by the government, so the rents are affordable and the environment is clean.
In order to promote the traditional activity and the city-state’s street gourmet culture, the Singapore government launched the Hawker Master Trainer Pilot Program in 2013.
The scheme — a collaboration between the Singapore Workforce Development Agency and the National Environment Agency — allows prospective hawkers to be apprentices of veteran street vendors. The trainees can learn how to cook chicken rice or run a wanton noodle stall, among other things.
As a way to promote and preserve the city’s hawker heritage, Singapore has also announced that it will build ten new hawker centers by 2017.
Elsewhere, Montreal in Canada lifted its street-food ban in June 2013. The ban was in place for 66 years because of sanitation reasons. However, the city government later realized that food sales from roadside trucks would energize public spaces and add new vibrancy to the city.
Now, food trucks can go into parks and city squares, but they have to comply with strict fire control regulations and hygiene standards in order to get the licenses.
Truck vendors are not allowed to operate within 50 meters from an open and operating restaurant in order to avoid direct competition.
Such regulations have helped both streetside vendors as well as the permanent restaurants in Montreal.
It will be good if Hong Kong authorities adopt a similar policy.
Rather than kill the hawker culture, the government should study ways to regulate and manage the hawkers, helping the industry become one of the notable characteristics of the city.
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