Jan 12, 2012|
More than a month has passed since the deadly fire on Fa Yuen Street that claimed nine lives. An arson investigation is still underway, but no culprit has been found. But rather than addressing Hong Kong’s problem of illegally subdivided flats—the likes of which made it impossible for many impoverished tenants to flee their homes during the deadly blaze—the government is pointing the finger at Fa Yuen Street’s hawkers, saying that their cluttered stalls and storage rooms obstructed escape routes and allowed the fire to spread.
The authorities have since adopted a “zero-tolerance” strategy towards hawker stalls that fail to meet regulations, and are threatening to revoke hawkers’ licenses if they commit six offenses within three months. The restrictions are as follows: No commodities can be stored outside the approved pitch area; the size of stalls should be strictly confined to three feet by four feet; stalls should have 1.5 meters of space between them; canopies made of flammable materials (such as plastics) are banned; and anyone subletting stalls will be prosecuted. According to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), about 880 hawker stall-related prosecutions were made between December 1 and January 3, with 214 of them targeting pitches on Fa Yuen Street.
The majority of hawkers accepts most of the rules—for example, the ban on leaving goods outside the stalls at night. However, some of the regulations are almost impossible to follow. “Yes, hawkers bear some responsibility [for the spread of the fire] and some admit that they have violated some regulations,” says Dr. Leung Chi-yuen, who teaches social work at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “People are forced to break the rules if the regulations are unreasonable.”
The simple fact is that the hawker policies are woefully out of date. Most of the measures were drafted in the 1970s, and they no longer suit the actual needs of petty traders. After the fire, FEHD officers ordered hawkers to confine their merchandise to the designated three-by-four-foot pitches—no extensions allowed. However, this space is no longer big enough for today’s hawkers. Attractive displays are a necessity, as customers are drawn to stalls by an array of colorful merchandise. “Some hawkers tell me that they have sold slippers on Fa Yuen Street for decades. In the past, customers might be impressed with a selection of slippers in 10 different styles. Now, they have to sell 100 different styles. Society has changed,” says Leung.
Despite the restrictive stall sizes, many hawkers on Fa Yuen Street are willing to comply with the size regulations. But with the government regularly flip-flopping on the details of the restrictions, many are left confused. After a fire broke out in 2010, the authorities insisted that the hawkers remake their stalls, with the height of the stall capped at 2.7 meters. They complied, and employed craftsmen to build news stalls that met the government’s requirements—at a cost of up to $20,000 per stall. However, after 2011’s deadly fire, FEHD officers told the hawkers that their year-old stalls no longer fulfill the regulations because they exceed 2.5 meters in height. This means hawkers will need to dig into their pockets again to build another stall. As a result, many hawkers complain that the government has never provided a coherent set of guidelines for them to follow.
Besides enforcing the current regulations, the government and the District Council have come up with additional measures to control the hawkers. One of the most widely discussed proposals is to have the Fa Yuen Street hawkers dismantle their stalls at the end of every business day, adopting a similar model to the hawkers at the nearby Ladies’ Market.
However, Yip Po-lam, organizer of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, points out that the authorities have misunderstood the history and nature of the hawkers of Fa Yuen Street. Yip, who spends a lot of time campaigning for hawkers’ rights, explains: “They were issued permits that allow them to work in fixed-pitch stalls. Only hawkers working in mobile stalls dismantle their stalls at night. The two types of permits have very different histories.” If the government demands the Fa Yuen Street hawkers take apart their stalls at the end of the day, it might actually involve a fundamental change in the permits themselves, which are notoriously inflexible.
Besides, Yip also believes that it is impractical to adopt such measures. Most of the buildings along the Ladies’ Market—which many hawkers use for storage—are equipped with elevators. Fa Yuen Street, on the other hand, is lined with old tenement buildings. If these nearby flats were to be used as storerooms, it may actually pose a greater fire hazard than the stalls themselves. Leung has suggested that government open up nearby unused lots and rent lockers or storage units to hawkers, but thus far the recommendation has fallen upon deaf ears.
The government is also looking to clamp down on hawkers that do not have the right permits. According to the current legislation, permit holders can employ assistants to help with the operation of hawker stalls. However, they are not allowed to engage in hawking in the absence of the permit holders, and the authorities have pledged to prosecute hawkers who violate this regulation. Such a rule is impossible to put into practice because most of the permit holders are elderly and unable to do business. In fact, most hawkers on Fa Yuen Street are not license holders. The common practice is for the hawkers to get an assistant’s license so that they can run the business and share profits with the permit holder. While this practice is problematic, hawkers are left with little choice, owing to the restrictive nature of the policies governing the permits. Although permits can be passed down through generations, the government has not issued new licenses since the 1970s (with the exception of mobile ice cream vendors). This means that newcomers have no legal means to become hawkers, while permit holders and their family members—who do not necessarily engage in the petty trade themselves—profit from merely owning the license.
All this fallout from the fire may, in fact, be moot. “The government has so far failed to find out the cause of the fire. Was it arson or an accident?” asks District Councilor Chan Wai-keung. “After the great fire, the government and media have put a lot of focus onto the hawker stalls. Hawker stalls did play a role… but the government has not looked into the fire safety problems of the two buildings that caught fire.” While many hawkers fell victim to the fire and the damage it caused, they have also inadvertently become scapegoats. Funny how the government has managed to shift the focus of the fire from the tenement buildings—which are damning evidence of the poverty gap and the dangerous living conditions of the city’s poor—and onto the hawkers plying their trade below.
“Fa Yuen Street belongs to everyone. It is created by everyone—it is our home. I started hawking when I was very young. Every hawker here raised their children with the money made on this street. ”
Mr. Chan, who has sold jeans on Fa Yuen Street for more than 20 years.