Mr. and Mrs. Wong have sold electrical appliances — lightbulbs, wiring, batteries and that sort of thing — from a green wooden stall on Aberdeen Street for more than 50 years. I met then when I was working on a CNNGo story about the gentrifying neighbourhood in Central now known as Noho, which is short for “North of Hollywood Road.”
Over the past five years, Noho has become a destination for art galleries, wine bars and trendy restaurants. In 2007, it was featured in the New York Times’ “Surfacing” column, which declared it a “cooler alternative to the nearby, expatriate-dominated Soho,” the trendy neighbourhood just up the hill. For Noho’s old restaurants, the neighbourhood’s sudden popularity has been a boon. People line up around the block to eat at the 90-year-old Kau Kee beef brisket noodle shop and Sing Heung Yuen, a classic dai pai dong.
But for the Wongs, business is terrible. “We’re lucky to make a few hundred dollars a day,” Mrs. Wong told me. She complained about the incessant traffic on Aberdeen Street, which is just two lanes wide but has become, over the years, a funnel for northbound traffic. The neighbourhood’s gentrification hasn’t helped, either: a few years ago, the block of apartments across the street from the Wongs was razed and replaced by a boutique hotel full of tourists who are certainly not interested in buying lightbulbs.
When the Wongs finally give up their business, their stall will probably be cleared away, because Hong Kong’s government has made it nearly impossible for hawker licences to be passed along to anyone outside of a hawker’s immediate family. No new hawker licences have been issued since 1972, when there were nearly 70,000 hawkers on the streets of Hong Kong, up from 13,000 just a couple of decades earlier, a surge that came with the influx of hundreds of thousands of postwar immigrants from China.
While they might be considered a nuisance to some, the abundance of opportunities for street commerce contributed a lot to the economic vitality that made Hong Kong the wealthy city is is today. Street hawking remains just as important today as in the past. After all, commercial rents are as high as they have always been and a small outdoor stall could be an easy portal into business for many young entrepreneurs, the same way public markets act as incubators for small businesses.
Unfortunately, unless Hong Kong’s government changes its mindset, street hawking will be strangled by a hostile bureaucracy.