The streets are still dark when Ms. Tsoi and her husband head out from their flat, pushing a handcart overflowing with used shoes, clothing, pans and other bric-a-brac.
The pair push the cart for 30 minutes to a street corner in Mong Kok, where they unload their goods onto the ground. They’re soon joined by a dozen other unlicensed hawkers, each scattering their wares on blankets spread across the sidewalk.
Tsoi, who is in her 70s, said that on a good morning, she and her husband can make HK$80 (about US$10) selling secondhand wares to passersby — their only income aside from their monthly pension payments. But they have only a few hours to work before hawker patrol officers start work at 8am and order them to pack up.
“Old people like us have no other way to survive,” Tsoi said.
“It would be easier to earn a living if we could sell [deeper into the day].”
That’s one of the primary arguments for allowing community groups to organize more bazaars. Supporters say the temporary street markets allow low-income residents to make extra money by legally selling food, or handmade or secondhand goods.
But such markets are few and far between, the groups say, because getting government permission to hold them is fraught with red tape — an example, they say, of how Hong Kong’s stringent regulations have slowly squeezed hawkers’ ability to make a living.
Defying the rules, as many do, brings trouble.
Authorities have in the past two months stepped up their raids on unlicensed flea markets, according to Apple Daily, with some 59 operations since June 1 leading to 42 prosecutions, 12 fixed-penalty notices, 36 verbal warnings and the seizure of 297 items.
The crackdown comes after months of efforts by advocates to change the system through official channels, efforts which have largely proved fruitless.
Lawmakers at the Legislative Council recently spent a year studying ways to promote the bazaars, and called on the Hong Kong government to create an overarching policy that would streamline the process of applying to organize markets. The government, however, has said it has no plans to change its approach, leaving hawkers and advocates alike frustrated.
For Mrs. Wong, an unlicensed hawker in her 50s, the ability to hold bazaars is about asserting her rights.
“I went to the Legislative Council so many times I can’t even count,” said Wong, who is part of a coalition of sellers and customers who advocate for bazaars and hawkers’ rights. “But in the end, we were unable to achieve our goal.”
Currently, bazaar organizers have to obtain approval from as many as 10 government departments as well as local district councillors, each with their own standards and procedures.
Janis Fan, a community organizer at the Concerning CSSA & Low Income Alliance, who helped organize at least 10 bazaars in Sham Shui Po in 2016 and 2017, said it has typically taken from six months to a year to hear back after submitting an application.
The biggest challenge of all, she said, is finding public space to hold the bazaars. Different agencies oversee streets, housing estates and parks, and she found that employees often simply didn’t know how to respond to her requests.
Meanwhile, the government has continued to insist on what it describes as a “district-led” and “bottom-up” approach .
“Every district has its own context, its own degree of development, and the cultural characteristics and planning parameters are different,” Dr. Chui Tak-yi, Under Secretary for Food and Health, told LegCo several weeks ago.
Fan, who testified on the challenges of organizing bazaars, said she was disappointed by the outcome. “It didn’t help to solve our problems,” she said.
And without government-approved bazaars, according to Fan, many would-be vendors become illegal hawkers, risking arrest, fines, or having their goods seized by hawker patrol officers. In 2017, there were more than 6,000 convictions for illegal hawking and other hawking-related offenses.
“We find this very unjust,” Fan said. “These families are just trying to make a living. They are not trying to steal. But there is no way to make this legal.”
On a recent weekday night, Coconuts HK visited Kweilin Street in Sham Shui Po, a popular spot for illegal hawkers, as they started to set up at about 10pm.
Mrs. Chen, 71, has been a fixture there for the past nine years.
“The government should allow more bazaars because we are fighting for our living,” she said.
A few of her regular customers stopped by to peruse her inventory: a mish-mash of tools, handheld fans, cables and cleaning supplies lay on a tarp on the ground. An empty cardboard box stood at the ready, in case hawker patrol officers came by to tell her to pack up.
Chen said she regularly participates in bazaars in Sham Shui Po during Christmas, Chinese New Year, Easter and Mid-Autumn Festival. At last year’s Christmas bazaar, she made an average of HK$2,000 (about US$255) in gross sales every day.
She said that’s much more than she typically makes in one night on Kweilin Street, especially since officers have come around more frequently, every hour or so, during the past two months.
Chen, who has been arrested and fined before, said she usually waits until they leave and unpacks her wares again, but the frequent interruptions have taken a toll on her earnings.
She put it simply: “No sales, no income.”
Hong Kong’s hawker policy wasn’t always so strict. In 1972, the city had more than 34,000 hawkers and 40 hawker bazaars. But the government eventually stopped issuing hawker licenses, citing concerns about hygiene and congestion. The move decimated the city’s population of hawkers and wiped out nearly two-thirds of street markets.
“There have been a few bazaars functioning very well in Hong Kong,” said Dr. Kwok Ka-ki, a Civic Party lawmaker and chair of LegCo’s Subcommittee on Issues Relating to Bazaars. “But there are even more bazaars that have been destroyed by the Hong Kong government.”
Kwok told Coconuts HK that in addition to helping people earn money, bazaars provide local residents with cheaper goods than public housing estate shops managed by Link Reit — a real estate management company widely criticized for raising rents and pushing out small businesses for chain stores. They also attract tourists.
He and other members of the subcommittee passed 22 motions urging the administration to take various actions to facilitate more bazaars, but their efforts have been to no avail.
Kwok said that he intends to continue to put pressure on the administration, even though the subcommittee’s work is now over — but admitted the prospects for success are dim.
“I’m not very optimistic on the development of bazaars,” he said. “And the government is the one who suffers the most from this lethargic attitude, because we are losing out to other cities.”
In Sham Shui Po, Janis Fan said that despite the overwhelming challenges, she’s seen small signs of progress. This past year, for example, 200,000 people visited the Chinese New Year bazaar under the Western Kowloon Corridor in Sham Shui Po, and two out of the 50 food vendors were permitted to cook raw food over open fire, rather than electric stoves, for the very first time.
She said that she’ll continue to go through cumbersome application procedures if that’s what it takes to hold more markets.
“Hopefully, it will create more discourse and change people’s perceptions of bazaars,” Fan said.
That is Mrs. Wong’s ultimate goal, too. The lack of bazaars and constant presence of hawker patrol officers has already made hawking too unsteady a source of income for her. She began working other part-time jobs several years ago to support her family of five, though she still sells at night, and at holiday bazaars.
She estimated that she makes anywhere between HK$200 to HK$800 a day during a holiday bazaar. But the money, she said, isn’t her main objective.
“Actually, when we started participating in government-approved bazaars, our original intention was to prove that our profession is legitimate,” Wong said.
“After all this time fighting for our rights, I hope that people will like the bazaars and come to see that our status should be legal.”