Navigating in the Mut Wah Street Temporary Hawker Bazaar in Kwun Tong, Hong Kong is how I imagine exploring in the postmodernist Westin Bonaventure Hotel would be like: you can’t really see what is ahead, and there is a surprise at every turn; sometimes you get confused or even lost, but never bored. The maze-like hawker bazaar is not a manifestation of postmodernism, but a makeshift construction to accommodate informal trading. In the hawker bazaar, instead of well-furnished lobby and hallways, you would walk on roughly paved concrete ground under a roof made of corrugated sheet metal; instead of beautifully decorated rooms, you would find different stalls selling bountiful of products, from essentials like clothing and stationery to rolls of colourful fabric. This is the hawker bazaar for me, one that exists only in memory.
The hawkers and residents bid a final farewell to the hawker bazaar in 2014, when the hawkers relocated to an interim site. To make way for the district’s town centre redevelopment, the hawkers are expected to move again in 2021 with the hope that it would be their final relocation. Permanence sounds like a peculiar idea for the hawkers, since the bazaar had stayed “temporary” for more than three decades, and just a few years ago they moved to an “interim” building. Permanence may also sound like a foreign notion for Hong Kongers, since the city is built on disappearance, as postcolonial scholar Ackbar Abbas (1997) describes. The disappearance of hawking may just be another obsolete entity to be crushed under the wheel of time, like the Queen’s Pier and Wedding Card Street; yet the wheel of time seems to run faster in Hong Kong.
Street trading and markets are centuries-old traditions of everyday life. It proliferated in Hong Kong in the post-WWII years, when the population surged because of immigrants and refugees. Street hawking was an informal practice that existed outside of the prescribed set of law and bureaucracy. For hawkers, it is a necessary means to sustain livelihoods; for customers, it is an affordable choice for daily essentials. For the government, however, it is a nuisance that poses public health risks and public space obstruction. Since the population boom, the government had set eradicating hawking as a long-term goal. In the short run, measures such as licensing and designating permitted hawking areas had been implemented to reduce the sprawl. The control over hawkers was tightened in 1971, when the government impeded the expansion of hawking practices by cutting new licence issuance and limiting license transferral within immediate families. With the number of hawkers declining, hawking has become less visible in public space.
The hawker bazaar in Kwun Tong is a typical example of regulated hawking spaces, a way the authority has tolerated this informal trade. Established in the 1980s to accommodate the originally unlicensed and itinerant hawkers, the hawker bazaar was meant to be provisional, hence the “temporary” in the name. It was a popular site for dry-goods vendors at that time, as it was located in road junctions at the town centre and close to fresh food markets. With the pedestrian flows and customers from nearby markets, the hawker bazaar grew prosperous. For more than three decades, it has been a tolerated informality under the government’s tightening hawker control.
Even though the government intends to eliminate hawking in Hong Kong, rushing a complete eradication may backfire badly. Besides the burden of a big sum of financial compensation to the hawkers, the government has to risk public disapproval for the resulting rise of unemployment and loss of affordable markets. This is why certain forms of informality are tolerated by the authority. As a result, hawkers are often posited in a grey area between informality and formality—they are seldom considered part of the formal economy, yet they operate in legality.
The case of the hawker bazaar in Kwun Tong demonstrates the state’s power to suspend tolerance. Being included in the town centre redevelopment plan, the hawker bazaar was subjected to demolition. Urban renewal in Hong Kong has long been criticised for its prioritisation in building high-end residential units and commercial premises, which causes rapid gentrification. Practically speaking, the possibility for the hawkers to be able to resume their business in the same district after the redevelopment is rather low due to the anticipated skyrocketing rent.
In view of this, the Urban Renewal Authority’s (URA) offer to resettle the hawkers to a newly built site almost appears to be benevolent—what is better than low rent and physical upgrades? Yet, reality hits as their businesses have significantly declined in the new site. Even though the physical structure is, by all means, safer than the old, worn-out bazaar, it is vastly different: new stalls are tightly organised one next to another, following a spatial arrangement dominated by grids. Neat and modernised, the new site still houses a wide variety of goods, but many stalls are out of business. The move from the fresh food market has broken the connectivity between the two marketplaces for the customers. The lack of proximity also makes the previous social connections with other hawkers and customers hard to maintain.
At first glance, the resettlement of the hawkers is an extension of the state’s tolerance. It is, however, another step for the state to advance the hawker eradication. The authority grasped the chance that came with the urban redevelopment project. With their social connections broken, business declined, and the community disintegrated, the hawkers are marginalised through the “upgrading” of the bazaar—an upgrade more of an aestheticisation that eroded the original vibrancy of the old bazaar.
The government’s policies of hawkers confinement and eradication stem from the dualistic understanding of formality and informality. The official discourse has portrayed hawkers and hawking activities as a nuisance and something that needs “control.” The informal sectors are presumed to be the working poor that lack contribution to the economy. However, academic studies have long argued for hawking’s contribution to economic advancement. For example, it was estimated that street hawking contributed approximately HK$1 billion (about US$129 million) to the economy in 1983, accounting for 11% of retail sales (Smart, 1989). With that said, the engineered shrinkage of hawking has already led to its declining role in the local economy, thus further banishing hawkers from the government’s modern “Asia’s World City” agenda. This kind of strategic segregation of informal sectors from formal systems not only confines, but also moulds the understanding of informality in class politics, reinforcing and reproducing the stigmatisation of hawkers as the urban poor, lower class, and less educated.
If we take a step back to examine the state’s intervention in informality, it becomes clear that the authority’s capacity to draw the formality/informality boundary is a practice of informality per se. To minimise the risk of ungovernability, the government intentionally tolerates hawking activities by keeping them in confinement, as long as public safety is ensured and no immediate threat is posed to the state’s authority. Through manipulating the planning and legal apparatuses, the state constantly defines and redefines informality, restrains and expands the grey area, and imposes and organises the spatial order. These are the multiplicity of ways in which the state manipulates informality to maintain legitimacy and affirm potency.
However, in this exertion of state power and enactment of informality, the hawkers, among others who are excluded from the state’s definition of formality, experience multi-dimensional marginalisation. In the case of the hawkers in Kwun Tong, they are simultaneously marginalised by the inequality exacerbated by gentrification and structural exclusion continued by the classed interpretation of urban informality.
The Hong Kong government’s strategies to eradicate hawkers and hawking activities are driven by their dismissal of the contribution the informal economy has made, and is making, to the territory. The remaining hawkers in Kwun Tong will move again soon (with the relocation date postponed once again). It is not hard to imagine what they hope for—not just a better premise but also better integration with the surrounding environment and neighbourhood, so that they can see the light of reviving their businesses and sense of community.
Abbas, A. (1997). Hong Kong: Culture and the politics of disappearance. Hong Kong University Press.
Kwun Tong District Council (2014). Tung Yan Street Interim Hawker Bazaar. Available at: https://kwuntong.org.hk/en/c2_7.html
Living in Kwun Tong [活在觀塘] (2020). 同仁市集變鬼域 小販被陰乾 [Businesses dried up in empty Tung Yan Hawker Bazaar]. The Stand News, 4 August. Available at: https://www.thestandnews.com/society/同仁市集變鬼域-小販被陰乾/
Oriental Daily News (2014). 逾百檔販拉閘告別觀塘市集 [Over 100 stalls bid farewell to hawker bazaars in Kwun Tong], 5 February. Available at: https://orientaldaily.on.cc/cnt/news/20140205/00176_040.html
Smart, J. (1989). The political economy of street hawkers in Hong Kong. University of Hong Kong.
To, J. (2012). 即將消失的香港舊區 [The disappearing old district in Hong Kong]. Lomography. Available at: https://www.lomography.de/magazine/183581-old-building-in-hongkong-tw
About the author
Yi Kwan Chan has recently completed her MSc in Human Geography and Urban Studies (Research) at LSE. She previously worked in art archiving after graduating with a BA in Comparative Literature and Fine Arts from the University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include cultural geography, lifestyle politics, and ways to sustain social activism.