Hawkers in Hong Kong

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A street market in Wanchai, 2010

Hawkers in Hong Kong (Chinese: 小販) sell a variety of inexpensive goods and food on the street. They are found in urban areas and new towns alike, although certain districts are particularly known for their concentrations of hawkers, including Mong Kok, Sham Shui Po, and Kwun Tong.

For many decades hawking has served as a means for the lower class to make a living. Patrons of hawkers enjoy convenient access to goods and services, and the inexpensive offerings that hawkers provide also helps keep the cost of living down. However, the government has long considered hawkers detrimental to environmental hygiene, and hawking has been controlled and suppressed by the Urban Council and its successor, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.


Hawkers on Temple Street in 1950

The emergence of itinerant hawkers in Hong Kong[edit]

From the 1940s to 1960s, there was an influx of new migrants from rural areas in mainland China to Hong Kong following political instabilities in China (major factors being the Chinese Civil War and the Cultural Revolution). Most of the new immigrants were uneducated and unskilled, and thus became part of the lower class population in Hong Kong.[1] Many of them became itinerant hawkersso as to earn a living with low operating cost. The flexible nature of the profession allowed people to keep moving in areas of the downtown section where there was a continuous flow of customers. They usually sold daily necessities such as food and clothing [2] to people from the lower working classes. At the time, the economic conditions in Hong Kong were poor, and working-class people usually had large families to support, resulting in the rise of ‘family consumption’.[3] These families bought their basic necessities from itinerant hawkers.

The position of itinerant hawkers in society[edit]

Itinerant hawkers in Tuen Mun, 2015

In the 1960s and 1970s, the number of hawkers exceeded 300,000.[4] At the time there were no shopping malls, few markets, and little government regulation.[5] The 1973-74 stock market crash and 1970s energy crisis, which led to factory closures, the decline of the manufacturing sector in Hong Kong, and rising unemployment, made hawking one way to earn a living.

However, as industrialization and urbanization increased, the British government became concerned about the threat to health and hygiene posed by itinerant hawkers. A licensing system implemented in the 1970s granted licenses to 39,033 hawkers and prohibited 6,000 from practicing hawking.[6] Thereafter the number of itinerant hawkers continued to decline.[citation needed]

Features of itinerant hawkers in Hong Kong[edit]

The food sold by hawkers is relatively cheap,[citation needed] such as curry fish balls and Fake Shark's Fin Soup 碗仔翅. The operation venue of these hawkers is flexible.[citation needed]



Leung Yin, a student of culture at Ling Nan University of Hong Kong, claimed in her book, 'Disappearing of Itinerant Hawker Culture', that hawkers exemplify the spirit of determination in the face of adversity that is an indelible part of Hong Kong culture. (消失中的小販文化).[7]


"The economy of Hong Kong relies to a large extent on the street food industry. If the policies for monitoring hawkers are too harsh, they will leave no room for the better development of Hong Kong food culture", Ma Kwok Ming, a local scholar who studies Hong Kong culture, has claimed.[citation needed]

Licensing policy[edit]

Before the 1970s[edit]

According to an estimate from the Hong Kong Hawkers Association, there were more than 70,000 street hawkers in Hong Kong in 1949.[6] While street hawking provided employment opportunities for the lower classes, the enormous numbers of hawkers created many social problems such as noise pollution and congestion. In addition, it was stated[by whom?] that street hawking discouraged market development since hawkers only had to pay an annual license fee of HK$1,000 to HK$3,000, while shop and stall tenants had to pay much higher rents.[6]

From the 1970s to 2010[edit]

The above controversies led the British government to impose restrictions on street hawking. The two former municipal councils took a series of measures to limit the numbers of hawkers. In the 1970s, issuing new Itinerant Hawker Licenses as well as the succession and transfer of licenses were banned, meaning that ”once a hawker retires their license is not reissued”.[6] In 2002, a five-year voluntary surrender scheme was implemented to encourage itinerant hawkers to hand over their licenses voluntarily “in exchange for a one-off ex gratia payment, rental of a vacant stall in public markets under concessionary terms, or becoming a (non-cooked food) fixed pitch hawker”.[8] This led to a drastic decrease in the number of legal hawkers: from 50,000 in 1974 to about 6,000 in 2007.[6]

In recent years[edit]

In response to recent[citation needed] requests[by whom?] that the Hong Kong culture of street hawking be preserved, the Food and Health Bureau(FHB) and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEDH) are jointly reviewing the licensing policy. For instance, the possibility of issuing new mobile ice cream van licenses is being considered.[8]

Jau gwei[edit]

Jau Gwei (Chinese: 走鬼; Jyutping: zau2 gwai2; lit. running [away from] ghosts) refers to the sudden abandonment of roadside vendor stalls in Hong Kong, when the squads of the Hawker Control Team (小販管理隊 or 販管隊 in short) are coming and the vendors are either operating a stall illegally or selling prohibited goods.

Gwei refers to the Gweilo, as the hawker control officers were usually westerners in the old days.

Jau Gwei is the word shouted out to warn other vendors of the approaching squads. Hong Kong has tried to reduce illegal vendors by licensing hawker permitted places, but a large percentage of street vendors still operate illegally. The term can also be heard in Macao and China's Guangdong Province where similar situations exist with illegal street vendors.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ma Kwok Ming. (2009) Roadside Political Economy 路邊政治經濟學新編(Ed.).Hong Kong. HK: Step Forward Multi Media Co Ltd. P. 83
  2. ^ Leung Yin Ling. (2011, July). Disappearing of Itinerant Hawker Culture.消失中的小販文化 Retrieved 9 March 2015 from http://www.ln.edu.hk/mcsln/25th_issue/feature_01.shtml
  3. ^ Consumer culture and economic restructure is closely related 消費文化與經濟轉型 密切相關.(2008,Sept 10). Wen Wei Po. Retrieved 9 March 2015 from http://paper.wenweipo.com/2008/09/08/HK0809080062.htm
  4. ^ A positive view to hawkers and put their features into good use.正面看待小販 特色善加利用(2009,Dec.15). Wen Wei Po. Retrieved 9 March 2015 from http://paper.wenweipo.com/2007/11/15/WW0711150002.htm
  5. ^ Leung Yin Ling. (2011, July). Disappearing of Itinerant Hawker Culture.消失中的小販文化 Retrieved from 9 March 2015 http://www.ln.edu.hk/mcsln/25th_issue/feature_01.shtml
  6. ^ a b c d e Sataline, S., Renton, A. Closing time: How Hong Kong’s hawkers face a struggle to survive. South China Morning Post. Retrieved 3 March 2015, from http://multimedia.scmp.com/hawkers/
  7. ^ Ming Pao. "®É¨ÆijÃD¡R¤p³c¡×«°¥«¸ê²£ ¡H". mingpaocanada.com. Retrieved 24 March 2015. 
  8. ^ a b http://www.fhb.gov.hk,. (2009). Review on Hawker Licensing Policy. Retrieved 13 March 2015,from http://www.fhb.gov.hk/download/committees/board/doc/2009/paper20090115_92.pdf

External links[edit]