Take a walk down Canton Road in Mongkok and you’ll find a whole universe of products of sale. There’s a stall specialising in seasonal herbs, another selling calamansi, fresh makrut leaves and other Southeast Asian delicacies. Countless stalls are piled high with fresh vegetables. Edge closer to Yau Ma Tei and the market thins out, the stalls becoming more eclectic. One offers packets of red and gold fai1 ceon1 (揮春), the lucky banners mounted during Chinese New Year. Another is packed full of power drills and other equipment used by the area’s many workshops. A few stalls are shuttered, their weathered green doors pulled tight.
There are just under 5,500 of these stalls in Hong Kong and that number declines with every passing year. Officially known as fixed-pitched hawker stalls, they were established in the 1970s as a way to control the tens of thousands of hawkers plying their trade on Hong Kong streets. They were never meant to be permanent: official policy calls for their gradual elimination. When the licensed owner of a stall dies, nobody can take his or her place; the stall is sealed up and destroyed. In recent years, the government has been trying to accelerate the process by buying back licences — nearly 500 since 2013 — and eliminating some of the smaller neighbourhood street markets.
And yet these little hawker stalls remain a lifeline for millions of Hongkongers. They are a source of affordable fruits and vegetables, a place to buy medicinal herbs, a reliable purveyor of clothes and shoes that would be too expensive anywhere else. Beyond their commercial function, they are sites of community interaction – places where neighbours cross paths and where hawkers share gossip with their customers. In a city that is often alienating and anonymous, market stalls present an alternative way of living, one that is a little slower, a little more disheveled, a little more human.
As you walk down Canton Road, take a left on Hamilton Street and you’ll find a stall that self-consciously embodies this neighbourhood ethos. Since it opened in November 2015, the Kai Fong Pai Dong, whose name means “neighbours’ stall” (gaai1 fong1 paai4 dong2 街坊排檔), has played many roles at once. It is a community collective, an outlet for local produce and handicrafts, a tiny urban farm, a library, an outdoor cinema, a place where an acclaimed artist will sketch your portrait, and a friendly spot for neighbours to gather and chat. It is Hong Kong’s grassroots spirit framed by the green timber walls of a pitched-roof hut.
The project was kickstarted by Michael Leung, a designer, artist, writer and activist whose work explores the process of community-building, especially as it relates to urban agriculture. Just over a year ago, he noticed a vacant market stall on Hamilton Street. “At first, I was looking for somewhere to sell seedlings grown by the Mango King,” he says, referring to a guerrilla farmer who has transformed a patch of land inside a highway interchange into a bounty of pineapples, papayas and sweet potatoes. But it soon grew into something larger than that. He was joined by local artist Flyingpig, who wanted a place to draw portraits of Yau Ma Tei residents, and farmer Tam Chi-kit, who was looking for somewhere to sell the bananas he grows in Sheung Shui. Many others joined after that. “We went from three people to 14,” says Leung. The keys to the stall are guarded by a laundry across the street, so any one of the members can show up to open the stall.
Kai Fong Pai Dong has been called “more of a performance than a business,” but the stall’s members prefer to describe it as an “urban commons,” a self-regulating space open to everyone. It has already had a binding effect on the surrounding neighbourhood. The laundry that guards the stall’s keys also supplies it with water for its rows of plants. Aunties and uncles who live in the surrounding buildings stop by to sit on one of the stall’s plastic stools – there are no public benches nearby. People from across Hong Kong are drawn by storytelling sessions and other events.
Last month, the stall became a market within a market as a half-dozen entrepreneurs gathered to sell their products in an event called Hamilton Market. There was a soapmaker, a designer who works with former factory seamstresses to turn old clothes into backpacks and tote bags, and Fredma, a septuagenarian kaifong who sells healthful packages of seeds, nuts and dried fruit. “We hope to do this every two weeks,” said Tam, surveying the scene. “Tonight we will show a movie about someone who lives on a rooftop nearby.” He unveiled a wad of theatre-style tickets the Kai Fong Pai Dong crew had made for the occasion.
Leung ambled over to chat. He pointed across the street, where a vacant stall had recently been demolished after its owner died. The space is now occupied by planters filled with herbs and vegetables, which were being watered by an adjacent hardware store. “We call it our front garden,” said Leung. But that too will have to go: now that the abandoned stall had been removed, the hardware store’s landlord is raising the rent, forcing the business out.
Similar scenes are playing out across Hong Kong as elderly stall owners die and the government clears away their booths. The empty pavement is usually occupied by illegally parked cars. “What was a street becomes a road,” write the stall members on their Tumblr, which contain essays and links related to the collective’s thinking. It’s a crucial distinction, since a street is traditionally a lively, diverse gathering place, whereas a road is designed to move as much traffic as possible.
In many cases, the government offers stall owners around HK$120,000 in compensation to relinquish their licence. That would have been the fate of one stall on Canton Road, if it weren’t for the efforts of Irene Hui, a community organiser who is one of the 14 members of Kai Fong Pai Dong. She managed to convince the owner to let her use the booth instead. She now uses it to sell second hand items and upcycled tote bags made by a local sewing cooperative. “The more of these pai dong we keep alive, the stronger the community will be,” she says.
Kai Fong Pai Dong is located on Hamilton Street near Canton Road. Visit its Facebook page for information on upcoming events.