The Slow Death of Hawker Stalls

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.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday February 07 2010at 01:02 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “The Slow Death of Hawker Stalls”

  • I can deff. understand the situation in hong kong because it is similar to that is occurring in cites across the US. In order to “better” cites and in the process of doing so, small businesses are being lost, along with the cultural of cities. Because outside people are in control of city plans, they don’t really make realistic goals or plans that will benefit people living in the community. Things that drive local communities are being torn down for mega mall and tourist attractions. its really shame that the same things are happening all over the world. I posted a link to my blog, where i have different stories about New York experiences and references to books that i think you will find interesting.

  • Mike says:

    I know the word ecosystem gets thrown around two much and should be used sparingly outside of ecology, but the analogy of an ecosystem losing one of its vital members really fits here. Hawker stalls seem to be one of those spontaneous, natural urban things, not contrived, that are an original part of the city. They aren’t just for profit and corporate expansion, but for survival. They aren’t homogeonous and a cookie-cutter version of some store on the other side of the world. They are individual, beautiful and vital to good urban space.