A DAB district councilor succeeded in putting the kibosh on the Lunar New Year Kweilin Street night market in Sham Shui Po this year. The market of hawkers selling cooked food from mobile stalls had revived in recent years and was particularly popular with young people. I had witnessed it personally in 2013 and 2014 and so took an interest when I heard it was threatened. The official reason for the clamp down was hygiene. But people I talked to were sceptical of that. One told me the government is scared of any unauthorized gathering of people after last year’s protests. Another said DAB doesn’t want the hawkers, who pay no rent, to take business away from shop owners and, by extension, their landlords. He connected this to the hegemony of the real estate industry. He also guessed that shop-owners had put pressure on DAB to eliminate the hawkers.
Hawker night markets were popular in Hong Kong when most residents were poor. They were known as the common man’s nightspot (平民夜總會) as they included performers as well as vendors. They started to disappear in the 1980s. One of the best known was daidaatdei (大笪地), located in Sheung Wan.
A recent column by Lingnan University’s student union publishing committee, published by Inmedia, surmised that the revival of the hawker’s market during the Lunar New Year holiday in Kweilin Street had led Hongkongers to reminisce about what their city had been, before the property industry dominated and mainland tourists had overwhelmed it. Apparently, Hongkongers are nostalgic for the past because their city is becoming a harder place to live.
Hongkongers had even come to see the Kweilin Street night market as cultural heritage, treasuring it accordingly. And so its banning was seen as another squelching of local Hong Kong identity by the authorities. And many Hongkongers, especially the young, are sensitive about that, because they’re aware of the broader effort by Beijing to dilute local identity and boost Hongkongers’ identification with the PRC.
The DAB councilor’s unpopular move created space for protest by two pro-democracy groups – one left wing, the other right. I observed both groups’ actions and comparing them is a window, albeit imperfect, on their essential differences.
In Kweilin Street, activists including some from the League of Social Democrats, made speeches. A styrofoam “Lennon Wall” was sticky taped to a railing and messages of support for hawkers written on post-it notes were stuck to it. Coffee and bread with jam was given out for free, as were crackers on skewers, a parody of what real hawkers would sell. There were some musical performances and perhaps 100 or so people milled around. There was no naked flames or cooking and so the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department officers on hand had no reason to act.
It felt formulaic
What struck me about the event was that it felt formulaic and contrived. The props looked like something out of a primary school play. Looking through the photos I took, I came across one showing LSD’s Raphael Wong reading his smartphone. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it can be seen as metaphor that the organizers themselves were bored and their minds elsewhere. When I came back a few hours later, it was all gone, meaning it lasted only as long as the activists were there, a few hours – the event had no life of its own. Still, it’s the thought that counts, and having that event was better than nothing at all.
The event contrasted starkly with the hawker’s market that sprang up in Portland Street, Mong Kok, apparently under the auspices of localist group Hong Kong Indigenous – it was packed and lively and went on all night. Perhaps one thousand people, mostly young, gathered to enjoy the fish balls, sausages, grilled squid and stinky tofu that real hawkers cooked up over real open flames. Most of these hawkers had offered their fare at the Kweilin Street market in previous years and had moved to Mong Kok to escape the ban. The event was a success because when FEHD officers moved in and told the hawkers to stop cooking they were forced to retreat — the assembled crowd booed, heckled and intimidated them away.
Something was different
I noticed some police standing around in groups but they mainly stood back and just watched. According to an Apple Daily report, at one stage some pulled out their batons and shields. And a photo on Twitter showed a police dog on hand. The Apple Daily reported added that a 38-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of obstructing an official from carrying out his duty and attacking police. But, overall, it seemed the event was a success, to the extent that others apparently wanted to be associated with it.
At one stage, I noticed a thin young man walking through the crowd wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words “Neo Democrats.” I struck up a conversation with him. His name was Jeff and he was an executive member of a committee of the political party formed when many left the Democratic Party in 2010. Gary Fan, a moderate localist along with Claudia Mo, is the party’s sole representative in Legco. I don’t know if Jeff had been asked to wear that jacket and walk through the crowd as a human advertisement for the party. But the cynic in me says he might have been as the Neo Democrats sought to establish a connection to such a popular event.