Media attention in Hong Kong last week was riveted not by the government’s ambitious new tourism campaign, but images of a distraught elderly woman writhing on the ground, begging for mercy from the police.
Ninety-year-old licensed street hawker Chan Tak-ching is no hardened criminal. She sells roasted chestnuts outside a subway station. Her “crime” was to allow an unauthorised person tend to her cart while she popped to the toilet.
“I beg you to give me a chance,” the old lady pleaded.
Her heart-wrenching cry was soon being aired on numerous news platforms, and discussed on radio talk shows, across the city.
At one point a dozen law enforcement representatives were called to the scene as Chan, imploring officers to give her a penalty ticket, collapsed to the ground when told, instead, her cart would be confiscated.
Does it really require a dozen officers to handle one frail old lady? The area was even cordoned off when Chan refused to let them take her cart away, further obstructing traffic flow in a public area.
It is understandable Chan became so distressed. The cart is her business tool and means of livelihood. It had, she said, provided her an income for decades.
In any case, she had only left the cart for a short while to visit the toilet (the closest was 10 minutes away), and surely some consideration should be made for her advanced age and lack of agility.
Chan’s case has highlighted an intrinsic flaw in the system. In recent years, the government has stopped issuing new hawking licences, and now actively discourages existing holders from passing on their permits to others, even to family members.
Furthermore, because she holds a mobile hawking permit, Chan is not allowed to hire an assistant.
Chan, and others in her position, find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. She cannot transfer or sell her license on to someone more physically up to the task, and to make a living, she has to operate the cart without the possibility of outside assistance.
To add salt in her wound, a government hygiene workers’ union has since come out in support of the cart confiscation, saying: “We always seize the tools as evidence.”
And while this is, legally speaking, true, we should ask ourselves: is it really necessary?
I remember a wise British magistrate, back in the 1980s, at Causeway Bay No 1 court, who had to process a huge number of illegal hawking cases every day. He would often reprimand the police for overzealously seizing carts from illegal hawkers, claiming there was no need to take away the means of livelihood after fines had already been imposed.
It was reported that, one time, this judicial officer even chided the prosecution, telling them: “The hawker has pleaded not guilty in this case, are you going to bring the cart to court as evidence? Release the cart and return it to the owner immediately. Just take a photo next time, for goodness’ sake.”
Those were the days before smartphones simplified the photographic process, so the magistrate’s handling of such cases was not only reasonable, but sympathetic.
The officers in Chan’s case could easily have taken photos or a video of the offending cart, instead of resorting to confiscation. Having said that, I don’t believe the officers wanted to give the elderly vendor a hard time. They were just doing their job and abiding by operational rules.
And here we come to the crux of the matter. It is the outdatedness and rigidity of our current hawking legislation – and its inhumane nature – that is at fault.
I don’t believe for a second the spirit of the law seeks to penalise hawkers such as Chan by giving them no choice other than to let some unauthorised person look after their stalls during toilet breaks. But are the authorities so rigid they cannot allow this old lady some leniency?
Do we really want to show the world that this is how we treat the underprivileged, the elderly, and those who are struggling to make ends meet?
The hawker debacle is not a true reflection of the spirit of Hong Kong. However, it does project a rather cold-hearted and negative image.
This is not who we are, and to risk being labelled as “Heartless Hong Kong” – especially after the launch of our global “Hello Hong Kong” tourism campaign – is unfair to all.
Instead, wouldn’t it be preferable to have people happily and genuinely singing our praises, like the mainland Chinese influencer who thanked city folk for their “serious and warm” support after the recent theft of his bicycle?
Hong Kong is not heartless. Most of its people are hospitable and welcoming, and the city certainly has its heart in the right place. We just need to open it up more often.