All the classics were there. Fishballs. Stinky tofu. Braised offal. A pair of South Asian men fried chicken rubbed with a fragrant masala; down the street, a young man with an extravagantly waxed handlebar moustache grilled lamb chops and scallops. In any other city, this would have been a hipster food truck festival. In Hong Kong, it was illegal.
You didn’t need to go far to realise that something was amiss. Last February, on the second evening of the Chinese New Year, a phalanx of riot police patrolled the streets around the illicit night market that sprung up on Portland Street in Mongkok. They had reason to be wary. The night before, a confrontation between hawker control officers and activists from localist political groups had devolved into a ten-hour street battle between protesters and police, with both sides hurling bricks at one another in a spectacular, unsettling episode of violence. At one point, when a group of protesters threw shipping crates at police, one officer took out his revolver and fired it into the air.
The chaos was dubbed a riot by the government and the Fishball Revolution by others. There was a lot more to what happened than just street food, but it is notable that the whole incident was sparked by black market snacks. For many, Hong Kong’s crackdown on hawkers is a symbol of inequality, political disenfranchisement and a local identity that is being slowly erased. So just how did we get here?
People have been hawking food and sundries on Hong Kong’s streets for as long as it has existed as a city. It’s an urban phenomenon that spans continents millennia, from the streets of ancient Rome to those of modern-day Taipei, and in Hong Kong hawkers have long been a source of affordable food and products – not to mention an important space of community interaction. Just look at the roasted sweet potato and quail egg stalls that dot Hong Kong’s streets every winter: even a solitary hawker becomes an anchor for the surrounding neighbourhood as people stop to buy food.
But for as long as there have been hawkers, there has been a government that sees them as a headache. The first attempts to control hawkers came in 1872, when the government passed an ordinance that issued wooden permits that needed to be renewed four times a year, at a cost of 50 cents. The same ordinance also banned hawkers from crying out to advertise their wares in Central and on the waterfront.
Their shouts filled the air in other parts of the city. In the middle of 1873, there were 1,146 licenced hawkers and “about as many” others who operated illegally, according to a letter written by the Reverend J. Nacken, a British missionary living in Hong Kong, which was finally unearthed and published in 1968. Nacken estimated that if every hawker cried out once per minute for seven hours a day, there were at least one million cries uttered every day. “That may seem an extravagant calculation on my part; but if some one will stand for ten minutes on any spot in the busy parts of the Chinese quarter and count the street-criers who pass by, he will doubtless become inclined to agree with the above estimate.”
Nacken made detailed notes of each hawker. The Chinese generally are early risers,” he noted, “but the congee hawker has been up an hour or two before sunrise.” He described how the hawkers carried their porridge in two boxes hanging from a pole over their shoulders, each containing a pot full of porridge heated by a small wood fire. “As they pass your door you have your choice,” wrote Nacken. “You may have pigs’ blood congee, fish congee, mulberry-root flavoured congee, or barley, or kidney or pork and a variety of other congees.”
After the congee hawkers came the vegetable vendors, offering celery, watercress and spinach in the spring, pumpkins and eggplants in the summer, caraway plants, taro and cabbages in the autumn, and mustard greens, garlic and parsley in the winter – among many other varieties of produce. Fish and meat hawkers emerged later in the day, offering fresh pork and haam4 jyu4 (鹹魚) – Cantonese salted fish. Nacken wrote that minced-meat hawkers in Canton (present-day Guangzhou) advertised their wares with the help of a display case decorated with “licentious” images, but the police in Hong Kong did not tolerate such pornography.
Nacken goes on to describe a mind-boggling array of other hawkers: snack vendors selling candied fruit and betel nut, hawkers selling bamboo ware such as “baskets, brooms, mats, benches [and] ginger grinders,” not to mention feather dusters, dishware, tobacco, salt, oil. “Beautifully arranged bunches of flowers are offered to you in the street, but happily in a quiet way, because they attract sufficient attention by themselves, I suppose,” he wrote. Every day around noon, outdoor restaurants would pop up on the streets, where customers slurped down noodle soups under the shade of a large umbrella. Each bowl cost two to eight cents. The stalls returned at night, this time illuminated by paper lanterns.
The final cries of the day came from men with empty baskets: refuse buyers. “He will buy from your cook bones, feathers (the good ones for fans and the bad ones for manure), rags and empty tins; from your coolie, paper, nails, shoes, needles, thread or anything that can be got hold of whilst sweeping the rooms; from your boy he will buy bottles, glass, or anything which you may have lost, such for instance as a key, a lock, a stocking, a handkerchief, or a gold button, and even a watch,” wrote Nacken.
Illegal hawkers have always played a cat-and-mouse game with police, much to the chagrin of many Hong Kong residents. In May 1931, an article in the China Mail described the case of an Indian police sergeant who arrested two hawkers for selling slippers without a licence. “A crowd of Chinese coolies collected and began to abuse the Sergeant,” reported the newspaper. One of the coolie grabbed the policeman by the belt and shoved him forward, causing his turban to fall off. (Though the coolie was hauled away by police and charged with assault, he filed his own charge of assault against the sergeant, which was eventually dismissed by a judge. He described the coolie as “a very saucy man.”)
The number of hawkers in Hong Kong exploded with the influx of refugees from mainland China after the end of the civil war in 1949. In 1959, a century-old night market in Sai Ying Pun moved to the car park near the old Macau ferry pier, where it became known as as the Sheung Wan Night Market (daai6 daat3 dei6 大笪地), or more evocatively, the Poor Man’s Night Club (peng4 man4 je6 zung2 wui2 平民夜总会) – a popular place to go for a midnight feast of locally-brewed beer, clams in black bean sauce and fried prawns. It survived until 1992, when it was replaced by a bus terminus.
Today, the spirit of the Poor Man’s Night Club survives in dai pai dongs (daai6 paai4 dong3 大牌檔), whose name literally means “big licence stalls,” a reference to the oversized permits the Hong Kong government offered to food stalls after World War II. Though these eateries were once common across the city, just 28 survive today, mostly in Central and Sham Shui Po. Their decline mirrors that of hawkers overall, whose numbers have dropped from nearly 70,000 in the 1970s to fewer than 8,000 today.
What happened? As Hong Kong’s population mushroomed in the postwar years, the government increasingly saw hawkers not simply as a nuisance but as a threat to the city’s health, hygiene and development. A plan was put in place to gradually eliminate hawkers through attrition. Vendors were given space to sell their wares in fixed-pitch street markets like Graham Street in Central and Canton Road in Mongkok, with strict specifications on what kind of stall they can occupy, leading to the distinctive green stalls that now populate the city’s markets. Ultimately, the hawkers were expected to disappeared, as their licences can only be transferred to spouses, meaning that when the original generation dies, the stall will be permanently closed.
While fresh produce and dry goods were accommodated in street markets, cooked food was effectively banned from the streets, with the exception of dai pai dongs, whose numbers have been reduced as the government pays licence holders to move their operations to indoor cooked food centres. In 2010, six dai pai dongs in Central were renovated, with new stainless steel stalls, better drainage and underground gas connections, but the future is uncertain for the dai pai dongs in Sham Shui Po, where residents complain about noise and cooking fumes.
And yet, despite all of these obstacles to their survival, hawkers persist – even those selling illicit fishballs. There are still an estimated 1,500 illegal street hawkers, especially In suburban new towns like Tin Shui Wai and Yat Tung, where public markets are few and far between and private retail is dominated by conglomerate-owned chain stores, illegal markets have emerged to serve grassroots residents: dawn markets selling second-hand clothes and household items, and night markets selling affordable snacks.
In recent years, government policy seems to have softened. In 2015, the Legislative Council’s Subcommittee on Hawker Policy announced an end to the goal of eventually eliminating street hawking, and it indicated that new licences may once again be issued. It’s unlikely there will be return to the frenzied hawker cries of the past – but at the very least, there will always be fishballs.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.