18 July 2019
The closure of the Mong Kok pedestrian zone is a textbook example of public policy failure, say critics of the government's move. Photo: HKEJ
The closure of the Mong Kok pedestrian zone is a textbook example of public policy failure, say critics of the government's move. Photo: HKEJ

Why killing the Mong Kok pedestrian zone is such a bad idea

It is a real shame that the pedestrian zone at Sai Yeung Choi Street South in Mong Kok has been scrapped, as Hong Kong people are now deprived of a piece of valuable public space.

I’m rather distressed by the argument that “the Mong Kok pedestrian zone had to be killed because street performers were causing a lot of nuisance to retail store owners and residents in the neighborhood”.

The reason why I don’t think this logic stands is because there were actually a lot of other viable policy tools on the table for the government to redress the situation in the pedestrian zone, instead of scrapping it once and for all.

Suffice it to say that the demise of the pedestrian zone is a textbook example of public policy failure. Here’s why:

First, long before the Yau Tsim Mong District Council voted overwhelmingly in favor of shutting down the zone, which turned out to be the last straw that eventually prompted the government to take action, the entire Sai Yeung Choi Street South had virtually lapsed into a state of anarchy.

On one hand, the Transport Department, which initiated the pedestrian zone idea, didn’t take up the responsibility to manage the zone, and simply passed the buck to the police and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), both of which, unfortunately, were dealing with public complaints about street performers in a piecemeal fashion.

As a result, the entire pedestrian zone simply turned into a huge circus that had spun out of control, and grievances among residents and shop owners in the neighborhood against the nuisance it caused quickly boiled over.

Worse still, as public pressure was piling on the authorities to take decisive action to clear up the chaos in the pedestrian zone, it seemed the first thing, or perhaps the only thing, that had ever occurred to both members of the Yau Tsim Mong DC and the government was that the most direct and obvious solution was to shut down the entire zone for good.

Yet the truth is, they have apparently overlooked some other viable options that could also have resolved the issue properly.

These alternative options include toughening supervision and regulation over the level of noise allowed along the Sai Yeung Choi Street South, increasing the numbers of police officers and FEHD staffers on patrol in the pedestrian zone, and enhancing the enforcement of the existing laws.

I feel compelled to point out here that the underlying problem with the Mong Kok pedestrian zone in fact lay in the noise and the nuisance caused by some inconsiderate performers rather than the street performance activities themselves.

That said, all it would take to fix the problem is tougher regulation and supervision as well as better management, rather than going to such extreme lengths as to kill the entire zone for good.

Shutting down the zone permanently might have wiped out all the noises along the Sai Yeung Choi Street South overnight, but it has also violated the interests and rights of other reasonable users of the zone, which is definitely not a good thing for society as a whole.

Even more worrisome is that by closing down the entire Mong Kok pedestrian zone, all the authorities did was simply drive street performers to other districts, thereby spreading the problems of noise and sidewalk obstructions across the city.

As street performers who used to be concentrated around the Mong Kok pedestrian zone are now scattered all over the city, it would make it even more difficult for authorities to regulate and manage them.

As a matter of fact, the negative side effects of killing the zone have already set in: just within a few days after the zone closure, the areas around the Star Ferry Pier in Tsim Sha Tsui have already been swamped by singers and musicians who used to perform in Mong Kok.

And online video clips showing clashes and scuffles between these newcomers and performers who have been playing in Tsim Sha Tsui for a long time are already going viral on the internet.

I would like to reiterate once again that the real problem with street performers isn’t the shows they are putting on, but rather, the noises they are making, and apparently both the Yau Tsim Mong DC and the government have missed the whole point, hence their failure to address this fundamental issue.

I have no idea whether the government will reopen the Mong Kok pedestrian zone in the future. However, I believe there is at least one thing for certain: the people of Hong Kong do need, and do deserve, space for street performances.

I hope authorities drastically review their current approach to the issue and consider other options such as revamping the existing regulation mechanism or introducing a licensing system for street performers in the days ahead.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 6

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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