Michael Leung’s “Good Morning” towels were a welcome sight. It was a scorching day on Fa Yuen Street, one of Hong Kong’s most popular street markets, and the energetic young product designer was inviting passersby to take part in a game at his market stall, Hoi Tung (“We’re open”). If you managed to use long wooden forks to hang the stall’s rags, socks, shirts and red lamps from ceiling hooks, and you did it under a minute, you were rewarded with one of the kitschy towels, a ubiquitous fixture of working-class Hong Kong life found in butcher’s shops, market stalls and around the shoulders of anyone burdened by summer sweat.
“It’s really about celebrating the street culture,” says Leung, who took time off from his rooftop farm and beekeeping projects to build the stall for Hawkerama, a one-day event that brought 16 artists and designers to Fa Yuen Street. They built stalls that ranged from homages to street culture, like Leung’s, to more conceptual installations like Kacey Wong’s Transform Bar, a market booth-cum-juice bar made from recycled wood and stacked with wheatgrass planters on sliding tracks, a nod to the flexible, space-saving storage systems used by market vendors, who are restricted to 1.1 sqm allotments by the Hong Kong government.
Those kinds of restrictions have multiplied since December, when a deadly fire ripped through Fa Yuen Street, killing nine people after it spread to nearby apartment buildings whose fire escapes were blocked. The government blamed the overcrowded street market and launched a crackdown on hawkers whose stalls spilled out of their allotment, ordering them to remove umbrellas, awnings and much of their goods. A new scheme was launched to reduce the number of street vendors; some government officials mused abou doing away with them entirely, or moving them to designated areas away from apartments and other shops.
That’s a proposition that Wong finds disheartening. “This is Hong Kong heritage,” he says, pointing out that street markets are also a source of livelihood for many people – both hawkers selling their wares and shoppers who rely on them for affordable goods. Earlier this year, Wong and several other designers founded the Street Design Union, a group dedicated to making Hong Kong a more hawker-friendly city. Hawkerama was the group’s first volley, a light-hearted celebration of street markets. Next year, Wong hopes to take things a step further by holding a street market design competition.
Building a better street market would require a big change of heart from Hong Kong’s government, which sees street hawking mainly as a problem. At the moment, the government’s hygiene department enforces street vending regulations, but there is no one responsible for overseeing street markets in a holistic way that could improve their economic, social and cultural health. “Nobody is looking after street markets, so they are being left to die a slow death,” says Wong. “They’re why we’re doing this. It’s part education, part action. Nobody is thinking of this at a creative level, a cultural level, and economic level. Design is always seen to be above this kind of thing. What we are doing is design for social change. If we propose something interesting, people will react.”
Hong Kong’s restrictions on street hawking date back more than 40 years. Faced with a massive influx of migrants from China, many of whom made a living by selling goods on the street, the colonial British government began to licence street hawkers and assign them designated vending points in street markets and indoor market halls. But there was a catch: the licences could only be passed down through a hawker’s immediate family, and no new licences were issued after the 1970s. It was a strategy of elimination through attrition, meant to slowly erase hawking from the streets as vendors retired and their children declined to take up the trade. The plan has cut the number of street hawkers from 50,000 in the late 1970s to just over 10,000 today.
But street markets play such a vital role in the community that they have survived despite the odds. In places like Fa Yuen Street, many stalls are now operated by subletters, while unlicenced street markets have emerged in recently-built suburban towns, where they provide an affordable and socially stimulating alternative to overpriced shopping malls. Hawkers have also adapted to regulations in sometimes ingenious ways. Within their 1.1 sqm allotment, vendors have built stalls tailored to their needs, with hooks on the ceiling for hanging goods, retractable awnings and shelves that fold out to create more space.
“A lot of them are like Transformers,” says Young Kim, a Korean-American performance artist known as Suitman, who spun vintage reggae, dub and Chinese pop from a mobile DJ booth at Hawkerama. Over the years, this adaptive quality has intrigued many artists and designers. Two years ago, architects Kingsley Ng, Syren Johnstone and Daniel Patzold took an old market booth, christened it Uncle Hung and used it as a touring exhibition piece for video installations and storytelling. Designer Douglas Young built an entire lifestyle brand, G.O.D., around the hodgepodge aesthetic of street markets.
Young Kim often tours Hong Kong with his mobile DJ booth, showing up unannounced at street markets and parks, dressed in his trademark suit and sunglasses. “Hong Kong has a great pedestrian life,” he says. “In Japan and Korea, people ignore you. In Hong Kong, strangers walk up and watch.” He is often treated to cold beer by chatty onlookers. At Hawkerama, Young arrived shirtless, goateed and wearing a straw hat—not an unusual look on Fa Yuen Street— before shaving his beard and putting on his suit as the day went on.
The other Hawkerama stalls were just as fun. Product designer Chan Ka-hing created the Share Your Heart Stall, made with lightweight PVC pipes and nylon fabric, where market-goers could sit and chat in the shade. Artist Peggy Chan contributed a metal “mobile wishing tree” on which the public could attach their wishes for the future. Design studio Kacama made use of a custom-built bicycle cart to distribute eggshell planters. Artists Ng Ka-chun and Reds put together a series of booths that included a soldering station where visitors could transform their plastic bottles into attractive flower pots. Hanison Lau took photos of potted plants along Fa Yuen Street—whose name means “garden” in Cantonese—and turned them into stickers that were given away at a simple wood-and-cardboard booth.
Several of the street’s hawkers helped organise the exhibition, taking part in workshops where they vetted the artists’ and designers’ ideas. “They were so willing to help,” says Polytechnic University interior design student Obie Chan, who hand-carved a traditional Chinese chop that read “Support Street Hawkers,” which visitors could stamp onto miniature pillows as souvenirs. “Street markets are the culture of Hong Kong, and designers can help hawkers if they listen to them and understand their feelings.”
Eventually, Kacey Wong hopes Hong Kong’s markets can take a more creative turn, with the government giving out new hawking permits to young entrepreneurs, like how emerging designers in Bangkok and Taipei often start out selling their wares in night markets. Hawkerama seems to have been a good first step. After wrapping up his stall, Michael Leung reported some happy news: “One of the hawkers said it was the biggest turnout since after the fire. I never really go to Fa Yuen Street, to be honest, but after this, I think I’ll be going there more often.”
Tags: Festivals, Hawkers, Hong Kong, Kowloon, Mongkok, Street Markets, Street Vendors, Streetlife, Urban Design