Save Our Streets

Walking in Hong Kong is more than just commuting

Anyone who has put foot to pavement in any of Hong Kong’s busiest areas knows that it is entirely its own experience. A bevy of collisions await you and, to conquer the pavement, you must navigate them all, from the umbrella-duck to the squeeze-by. You must exercise your patience behind the elderly and then contort your torso as you slip seamlessly past the mobile phone attached to the person in front. And then you must prepare your senses. The smell of bubbling noodle soup dancing a surprisingly harmonious pas de deux with spicy corkscrews of smoke emanating from burning incense sticks stood erect in a side-street shrine. The prickle of humidity on your skin, slow-cooked beads of sweat sliding to the soundtrack of the second; a distorted singing voice through a static-y microphone, cackles between old friends. These are the things that Hong Kong is made of.

In April, a report titled ‘Managing Vibrant Streets’ called on the government to take control of Hong Kong streets. It followed Carrie Lam’s promise that the government would improve daily life for pedestrians, from air quality to traffic jams. The report, published by group Civic Exchange, proposed that the government should manage the streets while retaining Hong Kong’s lively street life, and covered everything from hawkers to physical landscape.

Enforcing policy is no bad thing. After all, we don’t want litter peppering our pavements or factory smog filling our lungs. We disagree with disturbances at unsociable hours or irresponsible decibel levels. We appreciate the ability to get from one place to another with little trauma. Managing space in a more practical way makes sense. But there is romance to be found in the very grievances that people seem to be so eager to remove.

No matter how long you have lived in Hong Kong, walking the streets is never a meaningless sleepwalk from A to B. It’s possible that long-time residents don’t look for anything anymore, or disinterested parties just see a start and a finish. But that’s where they’re going wrong. To observe the chaos is to observe the reflection of society; the man who laughs when your closing umbrella sprays him with water; the shop cats who nestle, camouflaged, among the shipment boxes; the throngs of middle-aged gamers occupying a new Pokemon Go zone; topless men and loaded trolleys that won’t slow down; schoolgirls linking arms like daisy chains you don’t have the heart to break; mini amps wired up to optimistic buskers.

On a recent Hong Kong episode of travel show Parts Unknown, a local dai pai dong owner revealed that there are only 28 open-air street food stalls left; an iota of the hundreds that once punctuated daily life. The reason? Health and hygiene standards. Cleanliness, and perhaps the appearance of cleanliness on a greater scale. The show’s host interviewed Hong Kongers working in in different industries who all echoed the same sentiment: Hong Kong is moving towards the clean, shiny and new.

Perhaps it’s sentimentality speaking, but I do not want to find myself lamenting what was. I want to bask in what we have, not mourn for it. What I once understood to be malaise is now indubitably the feeling of fear. Fear that in ‘managing’ Hong Kong’s streets, the city will become a faceless facsimile of what it used to be. A city that has selected artists performing inside the very specific dimensions of regulation, delivery-people expelled to certain streets to do their work, eateries requiring bricks and mortar and every certificate in the book. No smells to linger in your nostrils, minimal sounds to be heard beyond the click-clack of shoes, and the sights to be of the very ordinary kind. A perfectly managed city.

It’s incumbent for any major city to stipulate rules and boundaries for the wellbeing of the people, and we must take a closer look at the issues that plague our streets. So yes, ensure street performers aren’t being disrespectful and work on air quality. But let’s not attempt to sanitise Hong Kong’s inherent, unapologetic Hong Kong-ness in search for some idea of ‘betterness’. Trust me, you won’t find it.

British-Chinese writer exploring culture, identity, wellness, language, and travel. Based in Hong Kong.