23 October 2016
While government officials (left) sell the idea of fancy food trucks, elderly hawkers (right) face heavy fines for selling popular local snacks on the roadside. Photos: Ta Kung Pao, Facebook/Artemis Pang
While government officials (left) sell the idea of fancy food trucks, elderly hawkers (right) face heavy fines for selling popular local snacks on the roadside. Photos: Ta Kung Pao, Facebook/Artemis Pang

How to turn a good idea into a bureaucratic nightmare

The war on creativity in Hong Kong is unceasing.

The bureaucrats who run this place seem determined to make it a laughing stock by inserting their sticky fingers in anything that looks suspiciously creative or spontaneous.

The latest example of this stupidity ticks more or less every box for how to turn a good idea into a bureaucratic nightmare.

In the last budget speech, Financial Secretary John Tsang said that a great idea for livening up Hong Kong’s food scene would be to introduce food trucks of a type that are very popular in Europe and North America.

I and other people in the food trade (the job I do when not moonlighting in journalism) thought this was too good to be true.

Lamentably, we were right.

Instead of doing something really simple like establishing a straightforward licensing regime for food trucks, the bureaucrats have got busy specifying where they can go, declaring that they will hold a competition to determine creativity and food taste and, by the by, the Transport Department is already busying itself warning that it will keep an eye on all this and impose its own restrictions.

So instead of doing what other jurisdictions have done and simply open the doors to anyone who wants to have a go at setting up a food truck, the bureaucrats will solemnly sit down and pronounce on the creativity and food-making skills of tentative food sellers.

We have been assured that they will be joined by experts; the heart sinks at the thought of who these people will be.

How many times do these dumb officials need to be told that creativity by committee is creativity stunted?

They honestly believe that the public is incapable of passing judgment on which food trucks they like and which they don’t like by the simple expedient of ensuring survival of the fittest, a principle that applies in all businesses.

Instead of allowing the normal laws of business to prevail, the bureaucrats insist on vetting these businesses before they even get off the ground.

Oh, and, by the by, they will only be allowed to initially (that probably means forever) operate in six sites chosen, again, by the bureaucrats.

Unsurprisingly, two of these sites are outside Hong Kong’s two nationalized theme parks, Disneyland and Ocean Park.

In case anyone has forgotten about the ownership of these venues, “free enterprise”-loving Hong Kong is the only place in the capitalist world where the state controls theme parks.

This was another triumph for the bureaucrats, who deem entertainment to be something that only they really understand.

The outcome of this pathetic plan to turn a good idea for food trucks into a bureaucratic nightmare (I shall spare readers a recitation of the complex licensing system that is part and parcel of this deal) is to ensure that the usual suspects from the tycoon-run food conglomerates will end up as the proud owners of Hong Kong’s new food trucks.

Were this an isolated example of how the bureaucrats handle cultural matters (to pre-empt criticism here, I would argue that food culture is no less important than other forms of culture), it could be brushed aside.

Who can forget the recent attempts to make Hong Kong a laughing stock by trying to bar cellists from taking their instruments on the mass transit railway?

The ban was overturned by public pressure but has ended up spawning a new bureaucracy for registering cellists.

Then there was the stellar achievement of the Highways Department — erecting safety barriers around statues by the world-famous sculptor Arthur Gormley on health and safety grounds because they stood in the middle of a wide pavement in Central.

Yet again, public ridicule was deployed to save the bureaucrats from their own stupidity.

Meanwhile, over at the former Police Married Quarters, renamed PMQ — a “place for creative happenings”, according to the official propaganda — smaller creative workshops are being squeezed out to make way for badly needed retail shops that no doubt will remedy Hong Kong’s acute shortage of high-priced designer outlets.

And to top it all, we are all anxiously awaiting the emergence of the arts hub in West Kowloon, the perfect fulfillment of a bureaucrat’s vision for controlling and placing the arts all in one place.

Thank goodness the property development aspect of this scheme is being boosted, because all of us spend our sleeping hours worrying over the lack of opportunities for property developers.

Finally, it should not be overlooked that the government seems seriously intent on putting local satirists out of business, as the bureaucracy strives to outperform the work of able-bodied satirists.

It’s a crying shame!

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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