The government plans to review its policy towards hawkers, and may even grant new licenses to street vendors and dai pai dong operators.
People hope the review will lead to a change in the attitude of the Hawker Control Team (HCT) under Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, whose members have been accused of treating hawkers as nuisances who must be kept out of the streets.
HCT has been tasked with curbing illegal hawking activities as well as minimizing nuisances created by street vendors. The problem is that their job has fostered an attitude that is squeezing the life out of the city’s once-vibrant hawker culture.
For some people, hawking is the only way to make a decent living, but HCT inspectors are making life very difficult for them.
There are countless sad stories of elderly hawkers being mistreated by HCT inspectors.
There’s Ng Yuk-fai, whose fault was that he had been too old and weak to run away fast enough.
Ng had been selling Hong Kong-style egg puffs in Tin Hau for more than 30 years. Having no license, he had become a favorite target of HCT inspectors.
In 2011, for example, Ng was arrested three times in just 10 days for illegal hawking.
After learning of the hardships of their favorite street vendor, some 70 residents from the neighborhood held a rally to voice their support for Ng.
That didn’t stop the inspectors from arresting Ng again. For each arrest, he had to pay a fine of HK$800. The HCT had also confiscated his trolley which costs around HK$2,000.
Ng, who refused to take government assistance, earned around HK$6,000 a month from his trade. When he was released from the police station after paying the fine, all he had left were a few coins.
His neighbors can’t understand the government’s policy against street hawkers. They’re not blocking the roads; they’re just trying to earn a living.
When Ng passed away in 2013, his supporters opened a fan page on Facebook in memory of Ng and his delicious egg puffs, and called for a stop to the mistreatment and supression of hawkers.
Supporters of the hawking trade lament that law enforcers tolerate tourists urinating and defecating in public and turn a blind eye to parallel traders. But when it comes to hawkers, the government simply can’t stand them.
Though a license holder, ice-cream hawker Chu Chung-wah has not escaped harassment from HCT staff.
A few years ago, Chu was charged with obstructing the pedestrian area at the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry pier and selling an item not allowed under his hawker’s license.
Fortunately, Chu got sympathy from the court and was fined only HK$100.
“Don’t be daunted and don’t change your work attitude because of the conviction,” Magistrate Jason Wan Siu-ming told Chu.
“I hope I can be your patron next time. I will be very happy to see you on a hot day.”
Weeks later, Magistrate Wan paid a visit to Chu’s ice-cream car parked near the pier and bought a bottle of water as a gesture of support.
Ng and Chu are only two of the legions of hawkers who are engaged in a daily struggle to earn a living in the unforgiving streets of Hong Kong.
Last month, in the run-up to the Lunar New Year holiday, HCT inspectors stepped up their campaign against hawkers by literally driving them out of the streets.
Where will they go? How will they survive?
As the government reviews its policy on hawking, it is hoped that it will change its attitude towards these hard-working people who contribute to the city’s unique culture and vibrant spirit.
It’s about time we treated hawkers as people.
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