Thursday, April 15, 2010

Hawking Hong Kong, Bill Stacey, Next Magazine

Next Magazine
A004  |   時事  |   Second Opinion 15/4/2010  |   By Bill Stacey

Hawking Hong Kong

The people of Hong Kong have a strong demand for the convenience, value and flavors offered by hawkers. Reviving hawking will provide dignified alternatives for those who will lose their low-paying jobs once minimum wage is enforced.

Hong Kong is famous for its markets. The most visible form of these for visitors is the street markets around Kowloon and the edges of Central. The markets are an exciting and vibrant reminder of Hong Kong's origins as a trading city. They assault the senses with colors, smells, noise and activity. The rhythm of the markets from their slow early morning start to their late night energy measures the pulse of the city.
Yet street markets and the noble trade of hawking your goods in the street are dying as a matter of deliberate government policy.

For 40 years, the government has adopted a "hawker control" policy. New licenses are not issued. Buy-backs of existing licenses continue. Controls are strict. Illegal hawking is stopped. Itinerant food vending is a particular focus.

Hawkers are moved into "public markets" with mixed success, but disappear from our streets. Fixed hawking stalls are boxed in ever decreasing "hawker bazaars", that are some of Hong Kong's most popular tourist attractions.

Despite these restrictions, and an incredible 191 squads of "Hawker Control Teams", there were an estimated 2,061 unlicensed hawkers in 2008 and 21,801 prosecutions. This record itself shows strong demand from the people of Hong Kong for the convenience, value and flavors offered by hawkers.

There was once a well-meaning reason for this assault on small business. Hygiene, traffic, convenience and crime provided that weak rationale. However, today's Hong Kong is a different place. Reviving hawking can re-invigorate commerce in the city.

Imagine moribund public spaces like the Central Ferry Terminals with dozens of food vendors on the paths offering nourishment for passing travelers and commuters. Hawkers would restore character of the city. They would help to restore Hong Kong to its status as a food paradise, which has faded as other cities in South East Asia have done more to preserve street food.

Hong Kong is often criticized for high costs of doing business, particularly the costs of real estate. Hawking offers low capital intensity opportunities for entrepreneurs. It allows them to test retail concepts that can become the large chains of tomorrow. Many of today's largest fortunes in Hong Kong began with street side trading.

With a new minimum wage increasing unemployment, permitting hawking will provide dignified alternatives for those who will otherwise lose lower paid jobs. Under current highly restrictive laws hawkers are limited to employing assistants and have to be sole traders. Families are limited to one license. There is a big employment creation opportunity.

By liberalizing hawking, the government can save money on "hawker control", social security and license buy-back schemes.

However, the main reason to revive hawking is that the people of Hong Kong, through their patronage of both legal and illegal vendors and despite forty years of suppression, show that they want these shopping and eating choices.

It is hard for government to change a 40-year old policy. Why not start small with a trial of itinerant hawkers on the newly constructed waterfront? This would not impact any existing residents or shops. There are no hygiene issues that could not be solved with ingenuity. If this small trial proves popular, it could be expanded to the estates of the new territories and revive small-scale business in villages.

Hong Kong's government wants to be seen as facilitating business. Reforming dated hawking laws could be just a start to a thorough review of the obstacles to commerce in our city. This is not just an economic issue. The freedom to trade is amongst our most cherished values and if people don't like hawker food, they don't need to buy it.

Reviving hawking in Hong Kong would be pro-competition law worth having.

Bill Stacey is in his 10th year as a resident of Hong Kong and is Chairman of the Lion Rock Institute.

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