What d’ya want sir? Cup of yin yeung coooooooooomin’ up!
Tucked between high-rise offices of multinational banks and companies in Central, the hawkers of Stanley Street serve up steaming cups of Hong Kong-style milk tea to early-rising workers. Business will pick up at lunchtime, when their kitchens will dish out plates of hot rice topped with wok-tossed meat. For dinner, beer glasses will clink as Cantonese dishes are set on roadside tables.
There are just a handful of such stalls now, food stall hawker Wily Chan Chiu-wah says. Decades ago the streets were filled with stalls and customers.
“It’s almost all gone now ... and we’re the lucky ones already,” said Chan, tossing rice and egg in a huge wok. Chan scooped the fried rice onto a waiting plate and wiped his brow with a towel.
Hong Kong hawking – an age-old practice of selling cheap food and wares from stalls and street carts – is going the way of horse-drawn carts and century-old buildings. Worried about hygiene, safety and street congestion, city officials took steps in the 1970s to limit the practice. Those rules – a ban on new licences and severe limits on their transfer – has shrunk the number of legal hawkers from 50,000 in 1974 to about 6,000 today, city records show. Last year, the city started a programme to buy back licences, further shrinking the numbers.
With many licence holders in their 60s, and no new licences or policy changes to foster this form of commerce, hawking – and all its tourist charms and economic benefits for the lower classes – could die out in 50 years if current policies don’t change, says Yip Po-lam, convener of a grassroots concern group for hawkers.
Perhaps realising this, the city has begun exploring changes to their policies, said an official of the Food and Health Bureau, who asked to remain anonymous. A department spokesman said the government recognised the cultural significance of hawking and is not trying to kill it off.
“The Administration’s current hawker policy is [designed] to strike a proper balance between allowing legal hawking activities on the one hand and maintaining environmental hygiene and protecting the public from undesirable effect[s] on the other,” a spokesman from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department wrote in an email. License restrictions are necessary, “as hawker licences should not be regarded as commodities available for free transfer or trading in the market”.
With many licence holders in their 60s, and no new licences or policy changes to foster this form of commerce, hawking could die out in 50 years
Yip said the government needs to move quickly.
“We see many overseas places – Japan, Korea, Singapore – that have kept them for a reason,” said Yip, who has spoken at Legislative Council meetings for hawkers. “Supermarkets, which are owned by large corporations, will soon become the only choice” for shoppers, she said. “If you see it from poverty alleviation, culture and tourism or local economy point of view, then you should grow it.”
Hawking has been an economic lifeline for generations of workers. It has allowed poor, sometimes uneducated people to earn a living on their own, without the expense of finding and maintaining a permanent storefront. Stalls provide convenient foodstuffs and household items, often at prices affordable to the working class, while feeding the new generation of office workers looking for cheap eats.
“The government needs to see that this is a cultural fixture of Hong Kong life for the past half-century,” said long-time hawker Chan Kai-tai, who sells fresh fruit from a cart. “This is it. This is where the locals, the poorer folks, the working folks buy their daily necessities.”
After the second world war, hawking became an affordable way of making a tidy living in poor, crumbling Hong Kong. Hawkers didn’t need to rent a shop nor obtain a licence to operate. The Hong Kong Hawkers Association estimated there were more than 70,000 such sellers in Hong Kong and Kowloon in 1946, with many “having engaged in the business before the war and have had long residence in the colony”.
The British government soon realised that the trade needed to be regulated, and enforced a licensing system. In 1971, the city had 39,033 licensed hawkers, with another 6,000 illegal sellers, according to the Urban Council. In addition, there were 40 hawker bazaars in 1972.
By 1974, town planning documents showed that there were 49,310 daytime stalls in business areas around Hong Kong and Kowloon. There were 150 stalls for every 10,000 people, with most stalls in high-density, low-income districts, according to the report.
City officials believed there were many more hawkers who operated despite not having licences.
By the 1970s, the city was concerned that areas dense with hawking could pose sanitation and safety hazards.
Documents from the now defunct Urban Council show that hawker policies were made stricter because by the 1970s, hawking was viewed as no longer a welfare activity, but a commercial one, which could draw larger numbers if the city didn’t tighten its policies.
“For residents living nearby, on-street hawking activities might cause obstruction, environmental nuisance or even hazards relating to hygiene and fire risks,” according to a government paper issued in April. “Shopkeepers in commercial premises nearby might consider on-street hawking activities an unfair competition with the businesses because hawkers did not have to pay rent," read another government issued paper on hawker policies.
The government issued its last hawking licence in 1973. Annual licence fees ranged between HK$1,000 to HK$3,000 – depending on the size, location and type of stall or cart the hawker used.
In addition, the city established a hawker control unit to pursue illegal sellers. The size, height and structure of the stall has been severely regulated by law. Sellers say that inspections are fickle and inconsistent.
Those policies have remained in place, largely unchanged. They were relaxed a bit in 2009, when the government issued 61 new itinerant hawker ice-cream vendor licences.
“The government needs to see that this is a cultural fixture of Hong Kong life for the past half-century.”
Today, hawkers can be roughly divided into four types: the fixed pitch hawkers selling dry goods; cooked-food stalls; newspaper stalls and itinerant hawkers who push carts.
After obtaining his licence in 1972, itinerant fruit hawker Chan, now 65, said he has had to quit hawking for a while because of government inspectors.
“All that government talk about encouraging people to work and to work longer, yet here they are stamping out our job,” he said. “Many old colleagues gave up because the work was truly back-breaking, or because of government persecution.”
Itinerant hawker licences became non-transferrable; once a hawker retires, that licence is not reissued. Fixed-pitch licences can be transferred once to a close relative, like a spouse or child.
Mong Kok hawker Chan Kong-chiu, who works on Fa Yuen Street, began his hawker life in 1977 as a jau gwai – an “on-the-run” illegal hawker.
The 62-year-old clothes seller stayed with hawking, hoping like many that he’d get the chance to “go legitimate”.
It never happened for Chan. Now he works as an assistant to an elderly fixed-pitch hawker.
Truth is, many assistants are the real hawkers. By law, the licensee must be present at the stall for it to be open for business. But licence holders are often too old to work the streets all day, and some aren’t involved in the business at all. Some assistants have worked this way for decades, but can’t obtain their own operation licences.
“It’s the business arrangement,” said clothes hawker Chan sitting on a short ladder outside his stall, keeping an eye on a customer rummaging through his clothes pile. “Most of the licensees are too old to work. So we do the job as an assistant and get a salary.”
“Most of the licensees are too old to work. So we do the job as an assistant and get a salary.”
Yip, who has been fighting for hawkers’ rights since 2011, said the lack of new hawker licences has fostered a licensing black market.
In some cases, one person has rented out a few stalls from licensees – often elderly people – and then subleased them at high prices, earning a profit, said Yip.
“No hawkers working nowadays will be willing to talk about it, probably because many of them are actually the ones renting these stalls,” she said. “Those who want to become hawkers have no way of doing that legally.”
The latest blow to the hawking trade came in 2013, when the government offered lump sums of HK$120,000 to hawkers willing to surrender their licences. More than 310 licences were forfeited in just a year.
The aim was to decongest the denser tourist-heavy streets after a deadly fire on Fa Yuen Street. But it killed off hawker streets catering to locals instead.
Yip criticised Hong Kong’s city planning and spatial use. Instead of building a city stuffed with luxury flats and office space, the government should save old neighbourhoods, perhaps designating some in new towns for markets.
The food department official said the government is considering issuing new hawking licences, given the wide community support hawkers have gained in recent years. The government draws the line at itinerant hawkers, the official said.
“Land [in Hong Kong]? It’s impossible to find affordable commercial space.”
The official said that the government was open to suggestions of suitable locations for hawker markets, but said it was extremely hard to find such spots, given Hong Kong’s tight land issues and expensive real estate.
Yip scoffed at the idea.
“Land? It’s impossible to find affordable commercial space,” she said.
Once an itinerant seller, Chan Kwan-yick dragged his cart all over Hong Kong for more than 40 years. He traded clothes, switching later to cart noodles – Chinese noodles in soup with toppings that included braised turnip and pig’s blood to various fish balls.
After multiple arrests that ended with fines, he got a licence which barred him from lawfully selling cooked food on the street. He switched specialities.
Now 74 years old, Chan works from 10am to 11pm daily, health permitting, serving more than 30 snacks including homemade boot jai go – bean and rice-flour puddings moulded in ceramic bowls – and sticky rice dumplings covered in coconut and sugar.
He sells up to 450 bean jellies a day in the winter, and up to 300 a day in the summer.
The veteran remained optimistic about Hong Kong hawking.
“Yes we’ll shrink in numbers, but would we disappear altogether? I don’t think so,” he said. “Even though there are no more licences, the illegal ‘runaway hawkers’ will be back.
“Without hawkers, society is quiet and empty.”