How a shortsighted policy is killing dai pai dongs

July 21, 2015 14:26
Shun Hing was well known for its barbecue pork egg rice and cart noodles. It closed suddenly three weeks ago, leaving its loyal patrons in the lurch. Photo: internet

Another dai pai dong is gone.

Shun Hing, a welcome fixture for many years in a Tai Hang neighborhood in Causeway Bay, closed suddenly three weeks ago, leaving its loyal patrons in the lurch.

The open-air food stall was well known for its barbecue pork egg rice and cart noodles.

It was so popular customers would be hard pressed to get a seat even on weekdays.

Shun Hing, which was owned by an elderly couple, had been doing business for several decades.

After the husband died, the business was inherited by the wife but when she passed on last month, the license became invalid.

By law, a dai pai dong license can be transferred only to a surviving spouse but not to the couple's heirs, unless family members received prior approval from the government to take over the business.

This sad state of affairs prompted a hard-hitting Apple Daily commentary by media veteran Chan Cheng who rebuked the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), the regulator of dai pai dongs and hawker businesses, for being too rigid.

Chan argued that these enterprises are part of Hong Kong culture worth preserving.

With Shun Hing gone, there are now only 24 dai pai dongs in Hong Kong.

In 2005,  Man Yuen Noodles suffered the same fate as Shun Hing after the death of Wong Kwong-hing, the licensee.

The FEHD cancelled its license at once.

The decision sparked outrage from concern groups which accused the government of destroying an important part of local food culture.

Legislators tried to persuade the government to re-issue the license. Still, Man Yuen was forced to move out of the premises.

A few years later, then chief executive Donald Tsang launched a program called “Rejuvenate Central”, under which the FEHD was tasked to preserve 10 dai pai dongs in Central.

Chan lamented that Shun Hing could not be saved.

And if the government continues to ignore appeals to preserve dai pai dongs, many more of these quintessential Hong Kong eatery will disappear before we know it.

Yet, dai pai dongs have a history five times as long as that of the FEHD.

The first license was issued after the end of World War II to allow families to make a living running small food stalls.

When their unbridled growth began to cause traffic congestion and hygiene problems, the government simply stopped issuing licenses and limited their transfer in the 1970s.

Such a shortsighted policy is the reason dai pai dongs are a dying business in Hong Kong compared with certain cities such as Singapore where street food stalls are held up as a model of entrepreneurship and cultural preservation.

Hong Kong's hawker laws and regulations are too outdated to make a difference but it takes an open-minded government to do anything about them.

In February, the Food and Health Bureau, parent agency of the FEHD, sent a draft hawker management proposal to the Legislative Council.

It calls for the grant of new hawker and dai pai dong licenses.

Let's hope the proposed legislation is moving fast enough before our any more dai pai dongs go the way of Shun Hing.

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EJ Insight writer