18th February, 2014
Three Days to Remember: The Other Side of Hong Kong*
by Ryan Kilpatrick
Waves of smoke run down the street, carrying the aroma of grilling skewers and freshly steamed cheong fun past droves of shuffling feet and breaking at the steps down to Sham Shui Po station, ready to pull you out to the sea of food stalls and street hawkers along with a hundred other hapless souls caught in the undertow.
For the first three evenings of the Lunar New Year, the officers of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department get to enjoy a well-earned break from their duties—and the street hawkers of Hong Kong get down to business. From New Year’s Eve until the third day of the new year, various streets throughout the city are transformed into bustling, lively markets with hawkers selling everything from antiques to computers and DVDs and preparing a multitude of cooked snacks; but the festive atmosphere, the rich scents and the laughter in the air, are but a mayfly—dead after just a few short days.
The largest of these fleeting night markets congregates on Sham Shui Po’s Kweilin Street, and has become known as the Kweilin Night Market. This year, the annual phenomena sparked a wave of self-reflection in the local press and social media as to why the people of Hong Kong are denied these simple pleasures on every other day of the year, and what this says about our dwindling public space, our quality of life, and the indifference of our government.
Foraging amongst these markets, young people typically likened the atmosphere to what they’ve experienced on trips to Taiwan. To the post-80s and post-90s generations, these are the only night markets we know, and in our minds it is areas such as Taipei’s Shilin that represent the spiritual home of the night market. What many of us don’t appreciate, however, is that once upon a time Hong Kong, too, had a thriving culture of street trading.
Although one might say that we already have night markets of our own—the Ladies’ Market and Temple Street—these have long since ceased to be leisure grounds for locals, and instead have almost exclusively become points of consumption for tourists. Visitors still have their night markets, but the people of Hong Kong do not. As one InMediaHK article lamented, ‘Hongkongers are permitted to celebrate their collective memory only three days a year.’
Beginning in the 1970s, the government of Hong Kong gradually placed more and more restrictions on street trading, and issued progressively fewer hawkers’ licenses year on year. Ostensibly conducted in the interests of public hygiene and safety, the scuttling of Hong Kong’s night markets coincided with the clearing of valuable land being eyed by developers, cementing the now ironclad bond between big developers and government that so characterises the city we know today.
The privatisation and commercialisation of public space is a process all too familiar to Hong Kong residents, and it is an issue that affects our quality of life every day. From soaring property prices to the attack on our urban and country parks, the space ordinary people have to live in and enjoy is constantly under threat, besieged on all sides.
For the twentieth year running, Hong Kong was recently ranked by the as the freest economy in the world—and yet street hawkers are virtually forbidden from any economic activity whatsoever. This irony has not been lost on observers, who ask just whose economic freedom the government is truly protecting. The biggest winners in this set-up are of course the developers and existing tycoons, who play a private game amongst themselves that no one without billions of dollars to their name can even contemplate joining. ‘Whether or not to support the street peddlers isn’t about personal taste,’ railed one article calling for a review of government policy, ‘it’s about the tyranny of real estate tycoons. To stand up for the street peddlers is to stand up for ourselves.’
All around the world, locals and outsiders alike are told that the people of Hong Kong are supremely flexible, adaptable and forward looking; they have no time for nostalgia and love all things modern, luxurious and international. Their natural habitat is the air-conditioned shopping mall, connected by bridges overhead and the MTR beneath our feet, thus eliminating the need for any bothersome street-level interactions. Hopelessly trapped in the present, they sneer at all that is not glass and steel, cold and corporate. But who are the ones telling this story? The very same elites who profit most from all this unrelenting development.
‘What we want,’ one commentator proclaimed, ‘is a Hong Kong with character, warmth and the human touch.’ The excitement aroused by Kweilin Night Market and the crowds that flocked there show us that the people of Hong Kong—at least a large portion of the youth population—are subsumed with nostalgia, and crave a simple life that offers the kind of unaffected, everyday happiness that a humble night market can so easily give us, and yet is somehow out of our reach—for 362 days a year, at least.
*The author did not submit the title of this article, existing title was added by Editors at The Real Hong Kong News