Fighting Over Flowers

I’ve never seen anyone get so angry over flowers.

It’s tradition to buy flowers in advance of the Chinese New Year, a festival that celebrates renewal as one lunar year gives way to another. Last year, when I was living in the Mongkok Flower Market, I watched as traffic became more and more snarled as the days led towards the new year. By the time the last week year came around, I was being woken up on weekend mornings by endless honking and angry shouts. Leaving my building meant fighting for sidewalk space with housewives willing to slaughter and maim for the last peach blossom or peony.

When I returned to the Flower Market last week to take some photos, it didn’t surprise me that the first thing I saw was a shouting match. A crowd had formed at the corner of Sai Yee Street as several people stood screaming at a few uniformed men and women.

After a few minutes, the screamers gave up and walked off in a huff. I followed them to a flower stall in a nearby laneway and asked what they were so angry about. I was answered by Kelly Cheung, a petite young woman with plastic-framed glasses and vaguely elfin features whose family has run the stall for more than 30 years.

The people in uniforms were hawker control officers employed to prevent flower vendors from blocking the streets with their wares, she said. For nearby a week, they had given the Cheungs daily fines for putting their flowers and trees on the edge of the sidewalk near their stall, even though this is done by every other flower shop around the market.

“We’ve followed them to the other flower shops and they don’t do anything to them,” she said. “Each ticket costs thousands of dollars and we’ve already been fined six times in the past week. It’s not fair.” 

I followed the hawker control officers around for awhile and watched as they asked other vendors to move some plants off the street. It wasn’t clear what standard they used to gauge how much something blocked the sidewalk — none of the plants they ordered moved seemed to be obstructing traffic — and I didn’t see them issue any fines.

But the officers wouldn’t say much when I approached them with questions. When I returned to the Cheungs’ stall a few days later, they said nothing much had changed, and they were still getting fined. But they were also eager to tell me about their flower business.

Take a look at the photoessay on CNNGo, which has more about the Cheungs, a bit about the market’s history and some photos of the pretty flowers and fruits that people buy for Chinese New Year.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday February 13 2010at 01:02 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Fighting Over Flowers”

  • Jonathan says:

    Wow, what an interesting story. This is why I follow your blog.

    Last March Break, I visited Hong Kong, Macau, and Shenzhen. And, I did walk through the Flower Market on my way to the Bird Garden Street (name?). I remember thinking just how quiet it was on this street, even though it’s one block away from a very busy street. Now, my memories of the Flower Market was definitely challenged by the story that you shared in this blog.

    Keep up with your great work!

  • Thanks, Jonathan. The Flower Market is normally quiet, especially on weekdays, but it gets a lot busier around any sort of holiday that involves flowers (Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, etc.) Chinese New Year is the penultimate flower festival so it gets just crazy.

    I was there last night around 11pm and it was packed. Last New Year’s Eve, I remember there were still crowds out until I went to sleep at 3am. Of course now the flower shops will be closed for the first week of the new year so everyone can have a rest. I stopped by the Cheungs’ stall last night and they looked exhausted.

    The bird garden is on Yuen Po Street. It used to be in a few small lanes next to Mongkok MTR station but it was razed and replaced by Langham Place in the early 2000s.