Glossy Teslas and towering skyscrapers offer a striking counterpoint to the hollering street hawkers who push carts of goods and the omnipresent wafting of freshly baked bread and braised beef.
Bustling crowds slow their steps passing streetside stores that blast air conditioning into the smoggy air but do not pause for a second in front of the old man who sells newspapers under the bridge.
Restaurant chains such as Tsui Wah and Café de Coral have pushed street vendors and dai pai dong that span generations into the crevices between buildings, creating a rich but cacophonous burst of colour, smell and sound in the city’s niches.
However, ongoing anti-hawker legislation and other efforts to “clean up the streets” are pushing out a way of life long viewed as integral to the city’s identity.
Hawkers generally operate in one of four ways: at newspaper stalls; as itinerant cart pushers; at cooked-food stalls; and as fixed pitch hawkers who sell dry goods.
The longstanding tradition of plying one’s trade in the city’s busiest spaces is facing extinction unless the government loosens its tightening grip.
Kan Sing-mai, 94, and his wife, Chan Wing-lei, 93, have been selling fruits from a cart they push around Central since they were 17 and 16.
“We’ve seen the city change so much,” Kan said, recalling early struggles for customers and later decades of knowing “all the other vendors” and regarding them as friends.
“We’d talk and give each other free snacks,” he added, but lamented that now “even the Central Market” was closed and that “we’re one of the few fruit stalls left in the district”.
Behind them, Stanley Street still provides Hongkongers a glimpse of the past Kan described, when authentic open-air dai pai dong fare was common. On this night, Kan and his wife were served up bowls of noodles, congee and other local foods till late.
Up the street, Wily Chan Chiu-wah, owner of cooked food business Sing Kee, echoed the sentiment.
“Things have changed so much,” he said. “By virtue of the disappearance of other vendors, I have had a thriving business … it’s bittersweet but I’m lucky.”
Due to concerns over hygiene and health, the government in the 1970s began its crackdown on this element of the city’s culture. Officials imposed restrictions on the transfer of licenses and bans on purchasing new ones.
Going further, measures to buy back licenses effectively strangled the trade. In 2013, over 310 licenses were given up when the city offered HK$120,000 to hawkers willing to sell back their license.
The Hawkers Association estimated that the number of legal hawkers had already dropped from over 70,000 in 1946 to 50,000 in 1974. It added that the new legislation drove the figure further down, to 6,133 in 2015, and projected that hawking and street vendors could vanish in 50 years if the current stringent policies stay in place.
“Hong Kong would lose some of its attractiveness and charm,” said Chinese University anthropology professor Gordon Mathews. “Street vendors and hawkers would also lose an avenue to make a living and a life for themselves.”
Even without legislation to prohibit their activities, many hawkers have no plans for their businesses to live on after them, which also contributes to the demise of their way of life.
“It’s not even that I can’t pass on my license to my children,” said Peter Lai Chiu-hung, owner of Hung Kee Top Quality Egg Waffles in Sai Wan Ho. “It’s also that I don’t want my children continuing in the family business. There’s no money here. I want them to have a better life than I.”
Lai began street vending when licenses were not as tightly controlled as now. He described himself as an on-the-run illegal hawker, or a jau gwei. Lai’s chosen path, while not illustrious, gave him a chance when he thought he had no hope, he said.
Chan Yaat-wing, 63, and her sister have been pushing their newspaper and candy cart around North Point for 36 years. Chan claimed wet market businesses and stalls were “slowly being pushed out by chain stores”.
“At one point Tong Shui Road was filled with hawkers selling a whole range of goods, but now, it’s mainly shops or chain fresh-food vendors,” she said.
The government has attempted to recreate the city’s street food culture by launching a food truck scheme early this year. It unveiled 16 food trucks at eight locations to serve local delicacies.
However, Mathews argued, stringent regulations applicable to the trucks that prohibit their movement and restrict them to predetermined locations rendered the scheme ineffective.
“The regulations on vendors in Hong Kong appear to be regulations for regulations’ sake,” he added.