May 17, 2012|
With their distinctive green façade and compact size, pai-dongs—or tin hawker stalls—line streets all over Hong Kong. From Pottinger Street to Mong Kok, the storekeepers of these little booths sell everything from fresh produce and cooked meals to fashion accessories—and just about everything in between. The majority of us walk past these pai-dongs every day without giving them much thought, but given their versatility, adaptability, and the independent spirits of their shopkeepers, they’re very much a symbol of the city. Here, we take a look at the history of the pai-dong, as well as meet some people who are helping to keep pai-dong culture alive.
A street hawker historian tells us how these green shops came to be.
Green tin hawker stalls, better known as pai-dongs, are a common sight on the streets of Hong Kong. However, their history and the reason for their unique appearance are known by few. Chong Yuk-sik, a researcher of the history of hawker development, has spent her time poring over historical documents surrounding these green tins, and her findings have helped shed light onto the history of hawking. Besides looking into the history of the pai-dong, Chong has also penned two books relating, respectively, to the history of Hong Kong’s newspaper stands and dai pai dongs.
Of all the hawker stores in Hong Kong, pai-dongs were the earliest to appear. “Looking at official documents, we can see that pai-dongs first appeared in the 1930s, before World War II,” Chong says. In official terminology, pai-dongs are referred to as “fixed pitch stalls.” Naturally, this means that they are immobile and are positioned in a certain spot. However, this was not always the case, back when hawker stalls crowded every sidewalk. “Hawkers would move the stalls in the past… [but they] found it impossible to move the stalls every day,” Chong says. “In the 60s, the regulations were relaxed and the authorities allowed the hawkers to store their goods inside their stalls, and so they didn’t need to move them anymore.” Since then, these hawker stalls have become “fixed.”
Another common source of conflict between hawkers and officials was the regulations that required the hawkers to sit inside their stalls. “In the 50s and 60s, there were a lot of prosecutions of hawkers because they would stand or sit outside the stalls. But hawkers told the authorities that it was simply impractical,” Chong says. The regulations were then relaxed, and the officials stopped penalizing hawkers, so long as they were near their own stalls.
Nowadays, the main row between the government and the hawkers centers on the size of the pai-dongs themselves. Many hawkers complain about the restrictive dimensions, which are three feet by four feet—which in themselves are slightly bigger than the previous guidelines of two feet by three feet.
Another noticeable change in the evolution of pai-dongs is that these days, many of them have a canopy for shade. “In the past, the law didn’t allow hawkers to build canopies. But some hawkers sold food, and their produce would rot under too much sunlight. So in the 1950s, the hawkers fought for the right to build canopies,” says Chong. Today, canopies remain a contentious issue for hawkers; they continue to argue with officials about whether extendable canopies may be built, or whether they pose a threat to fire safety.
Today, most of the pai-dongs are made up of metal such as tin and iron. However, the earliest pai-dongs were actually built out of wood. “In the very beginning, hawkers were very poor people and didn’t have money to buy metal, it was very expensive,” Chong says. “Also, metal rusts, unless you do a lot of rust-proofing… Hawkers didn’t make much money, and all this work was too much hassle for them. Wood, or even paper, was the handiest material at that time.”
The pai-dong’s bright green hue is very iconic—and you may be surprised to know that petty traders were never required to paint their stalls green. When asked about the color, hawkers say that they don’t know why the color is so popular; they just keep returning to it because everyone else does. “In fact, hawkers demanded to paint their pai-dongs. In the 60s, hawkers wanted to show the authorities that they were legal ventures, so they suggested using a uniform color among the stalls,” Chong explains. Of course, the officials welcomed the suggestion, as it looked tidier and made it easier for them to distinguish between the lawful and illegal stalls. Gradually, the green hue became the norm among hawkers—and the signature green façades are now Hong Kong icons.
There is, however, an urban myth attached to the green color of the pai-dongs. “In the past, rubbish bins, bunk beds, water buckets… all of them were painted the same green color [as pai-dongs],” Chong says. “People said that a paint factory closed down and it had a lot of leftover paint, most of which was green. The factory gave it to people for free.” Chong questions the reliability of this story, but nevertheless, it remains a fun tale to tell.
Chong says she sees a special charm in pai-dongs because they contribute so much to Hong Kong’s traditional street merchant culture: “The government has marked out designated streets and areas to accommodate pai-dongs… they don’t change much and so they retain much of their original character.” Pai-dongs on the streets may look ordinary, and we walk past them every day, but they are a living testimony to a small part of Hong Kong’s history, bearing witness to the street-level changes of this fast-paced city.
The green tin stall on Elgin Street overflows with old-timey toys and retro candies.
Stroll along Hollywood Road in Central towards Sheung Wan, turn left onto Elgin Street and you’ll instantly see a little pai-dong hawker stall on your right. You’ve reached the home of “Feel Happy HK,” a tin store dedicated to retro candy and nostalgic toys that make up a huge part of Hongkongers’ childhoods.
The colorful trinkets and snacks on display were once a common sight in the 1960s, and many of the items are well known among people who grew up in Hong Kong. For example, at Feel Happy HK you’ll find a “flying chess” board game, and a set of foil-and-plastic eye goggles filled with chocolate beans. Many of the products are no longer made, and have become part of co-owner Vincent Au Yeung’s personal collection. Bobo Poon, the store’s other owner, mixes and matches toy and snacks to make one-of-a-kind gift packs.
Among the packed shelves and eye-catching displays, our eyes are drawn to an iron ring that dangles from the roof with many slips of paper attached to it. “Many of our patrons wish to find childhood treasures from the good old days, so that’s why we have this ‘wishing hook.’ People can write down [the names of] their old-time playthings and goodies they wish to find, and we will try our best to help search for them,” explains Poon. During our interview, a customer came to collect her long-awaited toy—a heap of small colorful plastic swords—just like those she played with as a child. “She couldn’t wait to collect it, so she came during her rushed lunch hour!” Poon exclaims.
Au Yeung, for his part, is a fervent collector of nostalgic toys. “I have held exhibitions of these toys, and people would often ask me if there’s a shop that sells them,” he says. Seeing the strong demand, the idea of selling retro goodies came to mind. By coincidence, Au Yeung’s elder relative, a green pitch hawker license holder, was looking to pass on the license. And so Au Yeung became the proud co-owner of Feel Happy HK—a new kind of pai-dong.
The stall has been operating for three years, but its tenure has not been without hiccups. Whether Poon and Au Yeung can open the store at all depends on the weather. They cannot risk hawking on rainy days, as much of the merchandise is very easily spoiled. Another problem lies in Elgin Street’s steep slope. Although it’s meant to be pedestrianized, many drivers still try and squeeze their cars into the narrow space between the store and the sidewalk. Fortunately, many people are staunch supporters of the stall—not only customers, but also staff from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. In fact, many staffers call Poon their “daughter” and treat her with kindness and leniency. She adds: “There is one thing that people of all ages have had, and that is childhood.”
For decades, the Chung family has been selling winter melons from their green tin stall in Mong Kok.
Behind Mong Kok’s modern Langham Place mall, two sides of Canton Road are filled with green hawker stalls. Although most of them sell all kinds of produce, the Chung siblings—Chung Kam-ning and his younger sister Chung Yi-shan—stubbornly insist on stocking their shelves with only bulky winter melons.
All the other hawkers’ stalls are overflowing with myriad fruits and vegetables, trying to make the most use of every little space for their display. In contrast, the Chungs’ stall is plain and simple. Their no-frills approach doesn’t stop customers from flocking to the stall, amiably calling the elder brother by the nickname “Uncle Ming.”
“It is enough for us to make a living, and so we are content. I don’t care about other [hawkers]—I am not greedy [for more revenue]!” says Uncle Ming. Two of his other sisters (he’s got six siblings in total) sell groceries in another green stall across the way. Uncle Ming inherited the business from his late parents, who made a living and raised seven children all by selling winter melons. Naturally, winter melon is a common dish in the meals they cook and eat at home.
“There are only two kinds of gourd, the grey gourd and the green gourd,” Uncle Ming says, “but they can be used in various mouth-watering dishes—winter melon mash, double-stewed soup.” The ancient Chinese are rumored to have named the gourd after its health effects, as it is believed to reduce the body’s heat.
That’s why, Uncle Ming notes, “We can sell three to four winter melons each day in summer time! But less on rainy or cooler days.”
Though Uncle Ming is already in his 70s, he remains spry… perhaps a winter melon-filled diet keeps his energy up? He has to be strong in order to lift his wares. Each gigantic melon weighs approximately 22 catties, according to the traditional Hong Kong unit of measurement—that’s 30 pounds. “My waist actually hurts after all these years,” he says. Uncle Ming also has to wear finger protectors because the gourd’s secretions irritate his skin. He adds, “Sometimes, my hands bleed and it’s very painful.”
Despite the physical toll and the occasional hard times, Uncle Ming is happy to be a street vendor. “There’s more freedom!” he says. “We have no fixed working time but we usually work from 8:30am till 6:30pm.” The Chungs’ customers are mainly housewives and domestic helpers. Sometimes Uncle Ming encounters fussy customers, ones who want only the middle of the melon, and so he whips out his knife and patiently obeys. The Chungs charge $8 per catty for their prized product, or about $6 a pound. Uncle Ming isn’t petty, often throwing in some extra pounds for free.
After years of practice, Uncle Ming can chop a gourd precisely according to a customer’s request. He always asks the customers if they want the gourd’s skin peeled, and he cuts a small part of the sharp corners away so that the fragile plastic bag that holds the gourd won’t get cut open. The skills and techniques his parents passed down might seem trivial, but they’re part of the city’s oral history, traditional street culture and, in a larger sense, Hong Kong’s heritage as well.
An inevitable part of running his business, Uncle Ming says, is the presence of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) officers, charged with monitoring and regulating street hawkers. Officers drop in regularly to check to make sure hawkers’ licenses are valid and to ensure that the stalls aren’t taking up too much room on the street. The FEHD has been more vigilant since last November’s fire on Fa Yuen Street, which has been blamed on over-crowded stalls.
Uncle Ming and his siblings are on good terms with the FEHD officers, but he nonetheless feels the rules placed upon his trade can be too stringent. For example, at night every part of the stall’s operation has to be shuttered inside the green box that is its exterior, and not even the wooden board used as a table is allowed to remain outside on the street overnight, let alone the heavy winter melons, which they need to store elsewhere. Uncle Ming adds, “The officials should come and experience the life of street hawkers.”
Despite the challenges, the Chung siblings are dead-set on keeping their family’s green stall open. “We have been selling winter melons here for so many years already,” he says. “I am still healthy, and there is no reason for me not to work.”
With the government’s inflexible stance towards pai-dong licenses, license holders and storekeepers alike face enormous obstacles to keep operating their stalls. Chiu Gor, a pai-dong storekeeper in Fa Yuen Street, tells his story.
Ever since the government stopped issuing licenses for hawkers in the 1970s, a kind of partnership has emerged in the petty trade. Since many of the license holders are elderly and unable to do business, many hawkers—who operate the stalls on a day-to-day basis—hold assistant licenses and share the profits with the license holders. However, if the license holder passes away, it is family members, not the assistants who run the stalls, who have the right to inherit the license. The tensions that this causes is also exacerbated by the fact that many license holders are in effect landlords, and can demand unreasonable cuts of the actual storekeeper’s profits. But there are always exceptions. Chiu Gor has been selling gloves and clothing on Fa Yuen Street for 30 years, and had a close and special relationsihip with his stall’s license holder until his recent passing at the age of 80.
In the late 1970s, the government relocated mobile hawkers to the pai-dongs on Fa Yuen Street. Chiu Gor’s license holder used to sell dried fish, but after moving to Fa Yuen Street, he had to expand to sell a wide variety of dried goods in order to keep up with the competition. At the recommendation of his friends, he became acquainted with Chiu Gor, and that’s when they began their three-decade-long partnership. “You could say that I rented the stall from him, or that I cooperated with him. We worked together for a long time, and he trusted me very much,” Chiu Gor says.
“My license holder was not a very demanding person, and he didn’t care much about the ‘rent.’ He just took whatever I was able to pay,” Chiu Gor recalls. “He raised all his sons and daughters through hawking, so he understood the difficulties of being a hawker very well. If permit owners increase the ‘rent’ ceaselessly, hawkers will not be able to survive.” Hawking has always been a risky venture. The business is always dependent on the weather; the hawkers need to know the customers’ tastes and choose the right kind of merchandise.
Over the years, the relationship between Chiu Gor and his license holder became very close—they would go out for dim sum every month. “We were just like family and he treated me like his own son,” Chiu Gor says. He was very supportive of Chiu Gor’s struggle to fight for the rights of hawkers. “He told me that he would always support me if I thought that there was an injustice and wanted to fight for it,” Chiu Gor recalls. Usually, officials only consider the opinions of license holders; their assistants’ interests matter little in the negotiations and bargaining. But every time Chiu Gor attended meetings, his license holder would loyally accompany him. He seldom spoke, but his attendance meant that he lent his support to Chiu Gor in the fight for fairer policies for hawkers.
Chiu Gor’s license holder passed away two months ago. Although he was already 80, the license holder’s death came as a shock to Chiu Gor, as he had always been in good health. Before his death, he had thought of giving his license to Chiu Gor for free. However, this is not permitted under the current regulations. In order for Chiu Gor to continue his trade, the license holder’s children had to go through a cumbersome procedure to inherit the permit and continue their partnership with Chiu Gor—even though they do not rely on the stall to make a living. “Some of his children live overseas. All of them have to fly back to Hong Kong and sign documents, telling the authorities that they are surrendering their license to their eldest brother,” Chiu Gor explains.
After telling his story, Chiu Gor is emotionally drained. “I don’t want to talk too much because tears are already swelling in my eyes,” he says, blinking back tears before returning to work.
Local artist Kacey Wong re-imagines the humble pai-dong as a futuristic juice bar.
In busy Hong Kong, we seldom appreciate our surroundings, and with their signature green façade, green tin hawker stalls are an integral part of the streets that many of us simply don’t notice. But for artist Kacey Wong, they were a source of inspiration for his latest work. His revamped pai-dong, which he calls a “Transform Bar,” pays tribute to Hong Kong’s iconic green tins.
“Transform Bar” is a mobile juice bar that takes inspiration from pai-dongs. “In Mong Kok, there are lots of juice bars. So, I was thinking what kind of juice bar I would like to make. It would be marvelous if I could make one in which people could see me grow the plants,” Wong says. He then worked on the design and created a pai-dong from discarded wood. It consists of sliding planters in which wheatgrass is planted. When people go up to the bar, they can cut the wheatgrass and juice it on their own. The sliding planters represent motion and bringing a sense of dynamism to the work.
Wong has always been fascinated with the pai-dongs that dot the city’s streets and alleys, and feels that it’s a shame that many fail to appreciate their beautiful pai-dongs. “When we stroll along the street, the streets would be very boring if they are all the same. That’s not the case in Hong Kong—it is very dynamic. For example, on Hong Kong Island, we’ve got slopes and steps… For tourists, walking through the wet markets [with pai-dongs] is a very interesting experience,” Wong says.
For Wong, the pai-dong is something that can best represent Hong Kong’s character. “Pai-dongs are not a permanent form of architecture. Observe pai-dongs 24 hours a day, and you can see that they look different at different times. If FEHD officers come, the stallholders will fold up parts of their pai-dong. When the officers go away, the pai-dongs will go back to their usual form,” Wong says. “It signifies flexibility… It is something very Hong Kong. In very limited spaces, hawkers try to create more space.”
If you look closer, you can see that each pai-dong has its own look. Pai-dongs selling different merchandise have different needs. For example, fruit vendors need to showcase their fruit for customers to pick, so they need more horizontal space; vegetable vendors need more shade, as vegetables dry up if they’re left in direct sunlight. With different needs to be met, hawkers have learned how to solve their problems with their hands. “It is Hong Kong spirit. Perhaps it’s more about the older generation of Hongkongers. In difficult conditions, people will make do and hope for the best. We don’t give up, even when people obstruct us,” Wong says.
Wong believes that creating pai-dong-inspired artwork can stimulate public debate and allow people to reflect on the true value of pai-dongs in the city. But besides creating more art, Wong is planning to do more to help the hawkers—the safety and appropriateness of pai-dongs were called into question following last year’s blaze in Fa Yuen Street. After the fire, Wong and his friends started Street Design Union, a platform that encourages designers to use their creative talents to address social injustices. One of the focuses of the new organization will be on hawkers. However, Wong is ambivalent when asked whether he would design new pai-dongs for hawkers. “If I had to design a stall based on the FEHD’s regulations, it would be mission impossible. It’s difficult to please everyone because the hawkers dislike the standard size of four feet by three feet—it’s too stringent!” Wong says. “Also, if there is a standardized design, all the hawker stalls will look the same. The organic growth [of stalls] will be lost.”
Under the suppression of authorities, it is undeniable that it is becoming harder for pai-dongs to survive. Wong believes that the culture of pai-dongs has to be saved. “We have to keep our character. If we do everything the same as everywhere else, we will become globalized, and that’s a shame.”
Get a cup of fresh wheat grass juice from Wong’s “Transform Bar” at the “Market Forces” Exhibition organized by Osage Gallery. May 15-Jun 17. Twelve other artists will be joining Wong in the exhibition, which is located at 5/F, Kian Dai Industrial Building, 73-75 Hung To Road, Kwun Tong.