Will Hong Kong’s street hawkers be saved by government licences or see their trades die?
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on October 22, 2016.
By Jessie Lau and Josh Ye
On a pavement in Hong Kong’s Kwun Tong district, a 60-year-old clocksmith sits behind a small mobile cupboard, carefully taking tools out of various drawers to repair a broken watch.
He is one of five street hawking tradesman that the government are planning to issue licenses to in the district in a bid to legalise their operations. Critics say the move may force those who are unable to afford the fees to close down and end the succession of some traditional handcrafts.
The licenses would include an annual license fee of about HK$3,458, according to a proposal submitted to the Kwun Tong district council last month.
“I make just about HK$200 a day,” the clocksmith, who only gave his surname Tsang, said. “If all the charges add up and exceed HK$4000 [a month], I might as well just go clean toilets.”
Tsang said he was not sure if he wanted to be legalised or simply shut down his business.
Just two streets away, Tsang’s teacher, a 67-year-old master surnamed Lee, sits inside a less than three-feet-wide mobile cupboard.
Lee operates one of the most popular workshops in the area, with a long queue of customers stretched down the pavement waiting to get their watches repaired. But he was not approached by the government for a license.
Lee, one of 19 clocksmiths trained by the former Chinese military office, said: “I don’t know why I didn’t qualify.
Without a license, his workshop is often closed down by Food and Environmental Hygiene Department officers. He says they confiscate his cupboard and patrol the area constantly.
Lee would like to have a license that could be transferred to his family or his apprentice in order to keep the craft alive.
But the government’s crackdown on tradesmen and the policy of non-transferral for street hawking licenses has made it hard for such craftsmen to find jobs, he said.
“Four apprentices of mine could not find a job after I finished with them. Seven people switched to another profession,” he said. “I felt disenchanted and decided never to take in any new apprentices.”
Street hawkers have been a staple of Hong Kong daily life since the early post-war years, providing inexpensive necessities and fostering diverse traditional trades from watchwork to locksmithing.
Yet in the early 1970s, the government decided not to issue new licenses and declared that licensed hawkers should be relocated into public market buildings or off-street hawker bazaars. This led to a gradual reduction in the number of licensed hawkers.
At the end of January 2013, there were 6,300 licensed hawkers, down 30 per cent from the figure in the late 1980s.
Earlier this year, the government proposed reviewing the issue and issuing licences to unlicensed street tradesmen so they could conduct business at “suitable sites legally,” according to a report in February by the Food and Health Bureau and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.
“For the residents living nearby, on-street hawking activities might cause obstruction, environmental nuisance or even hazards relating to hygiene and fire risks,” the report said.
An FEHD spokesman said in Kwun Tong five tradesmen indicated their intention to keep operating and three of them would be issued licenses. As of last month there were 166 such license holders in Hong Kong, one of whom is in Kwun Tong.
Tradesmen issued a license would be able to continue conducting business legally at the site, or choose a site from the district’s existing vacant hawker pitches. They may also propose new sites for assessment, the spokesman added.
Lau Siu-lai, a legislator-elect who has in the past been an activist for street hawking, said they should be given a cheaper license and rental price for their sites so they can continue their trade and eke out a living.
“Hawking provides a way for the elderly and the lower class to support themselves,” she said. “They also provide cheap consumer goods. They help build a community. They build personal relations and create a warmer atmosphere in the neighbourhood.”
Gordon Mathews, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, echoed Lau’s sentiments. He described street hawking as a long local tradition adding a significant cultural element to the city.
“I personally think that street hawkers are a part of Hong Kong culture and the government is being way too bureaucratic in cracking down,” he said. “It’s causing Hong Kong to lose some of its old character.”
Some tradesmen who have been approached say the licensing fee is an acceptable burden if their work can be legitimised.
Shoemaker Tang Shu-king, 50, said a vendor license would be a “dream come true.” With a hammer, a wrench, two short stools, a knit kit and a few short stools, she has been fixing shoes under a footbridge near Kwun Tong Station for a decade.
Although Tang has been working with FEHD to get a licence since 2008, she never really thought she would actually succeed.
“Paying a few thousand bucks a year for a license is reasonable,” she said. “Although my spot here under the footbridge does not obstruct any business or traffic, sometimes people still complained about my business and FEHD then had to send people to shoo me away. With a licence, I will no longer be kicked around by people.”
Encircled by fences on all sides, Tang’s humble workshop is located in an area under the footbridge steps. She charges her customers less than HK$30 to stitch up their shoes and about HK$80 to replace the heel of a leather shoe.
Tang called her craft vital, claiming there are only two machines in Hong Kong that can stitch shoes as accurately as a traditional shoemaker.
Originally from Sichuan province, she was trained in factories on the mainland as well as in Hong Kong.
“On a good day, I make about HK$300,” she said. “But there are so many bad days during which I don’t get to work because of either a rain storm or high temperature.” She added there is still interest in her craft as 10 people have approached her about an apprenticeship.
Lau Tai-kuen, an 80-year-old shoemaker, agreed that licenses would be good for business. Yet he too lamented they could not be passed to apprentices and said the industry would eventually vanish.
“This is a dying industry and we all know it,” he said. “There are not many craftsmen left in the area. The ones that are left are all very old ... the government is just trying do right by the old fellows at this very last moment. But eventually they will let the industry die as we depart this world.”