18 February 2019
Street hawkers ply their trade in Mong Kok during the Chinese New Year holidays. Hong Kong has been seeking to rein in the roadside vendors, but activists are urging a rethink in the government's policies. Photo: SocRec
Street hawkers ply their trade in Mong Kok during the Chinese New Year holidays. Hong Kong has been seeking to rein in the roadside vendors, but activists are urging a rethink in the government's policies. Photo: SocRec

What HK can learn from the fresh debate on street hawkers

The Chinese New Year holidays once again brought into focus the issue of street vendors and temporary night markets in Hong Kong and whether authorities are justified in clamping down on the popular, though unlicensed, attractions. 

Even as activists argued that hawkers represent a part of Hong Kong’s culture, authorities kept a tight watch on night markets in places such as Sham Shui Po and Mong Kok to prevent people from selling food and other stuff on the streets during the holidays.

In Mong Kok, one of the city’s top commercial hubs, police officers armed with guns and shields were seen patrolling the streets in a cat-and-mouse game with hawkers.

“Public hygiene” concerns were cited for the crackdown on unlicensed food vendors, but members of the public still thronged to whatever stalls they could find.

Carts bearing fish balls, rice rolls and sausages were a big draw, evoking nostalgia among crowds in Mong Kok, Kowloon Bay, Sham Shui Po, Wong Tai Sin and other districts and prompting a fresh debate about the government’s “clean-up” drive.

Hong Kong’s night markets had won wide recognition in the past for offering a range of cheap goods and serving up popular local food items at the roadside. But the markets have been gradually fading in recent years due to urban redevelopment initiatives and the government’s public hygiene push.

Amid this situation, social activists are questioning the administration’s policies and arguing that the hawker clearance drive may be going too far.

Rather than eliminate the hawkers, the government should seek ways to preserve the age-old traditions, the activists say, pointing out that street markets add vitality to the tourism sector.

The hawker regulatory framework can be improved to allow vendors to run their businesses at specially earmarked places and during specified times during the day.

For example, the government can permit hawkers to operate at selected pedestrian zones during public holidays to sell fresh food, hand-made art works, etc. Such arrangement will help local entrepreneurs reach out to customers without having to bear the high shop rental costs, activists say.

Meanwhile, the initiative will also promote Hong Kong’s diversity in product offerings and reduce the city’s dependence on retail chain stores to draw in tourists.

The effort is important as Hong Kong needs to readjust its strategy in tourism industry development, which has long been distorted by an influx of mainland visitors.

A mainland individual traveler scheme that was put in place in 2003 was aimed at shoring up the city’s economy following a SARS epidemic, but the program has led to unforeseen consequences.

Hordes of Chinese flocked to the city to snap up products ranging from canned food and toilet paper to milk formula, making Hong Kong a supermarket for mainland visitors, rather than anything else.

With many Chinese congregating at shopping malls rather than visiting tourist attractions, locals have been complaining of shortages of daily necessities as well as traffic congestion and other issues.

Echoing such concerns, some groups staged demonstrations at shopping malls in Sheung Shui, Sha Tin and Tsuen Wan in the past few weeks to voice their discontent about Chinese visitors and putting pressure on the government to implement new policies to slow the growth of mainland arrivals.

In the latest protest, the Population Capacity Concern Group organized a demonstration Sunday in Tsuen Wan, urging the government to cancel plans to add three more mainland cities to the list of places where residents can apply for individual permits to visit Hong Kong.

The group also wants authorities to cancel the multiple-entry permits that Shenzhen residents can obtain.

However, authorities on both sides of the border seem to think that the current arrangement is just fine. In fact, China announced recently that local governments in the country will be given approval powers with regard to their residents’ Hong Kong visa applications.

As for the Hong Kong government, one cannot argue with the notion that mainland visitors are a very important pillar for the local retail sector and the overall economy. 

But the administration should realize that it needs to look beyond mainlanders and attract more visitors from other countries if the tourism sector is to thrive in the years ahead.

The city should be promoted as a cultural destination rather than as a shopping hub, while striking the right balance between the needs of local people and tourists.

In this regard, special zones where hawkers and artists can ply their trade must be given fresh thought to help give a new dimension to the local tourism industry. 

If the government adjusts its policies, it will surely find its initiative welcomed by most of the city’s residents.

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EJ Insight writer

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