The Fishball Revolution swept the streets of Hong Kong earlier this week following a peaceful protest allegedly turned violent by “radical” elements, says the Hong Kong police. As of February 11th, 37 individuals with suspected ties to the riot have been arrested by authorities. Among those arrested was Derek Lam a member of the Scholarism group, a group which as much of the backbone for the pro-democracy riots. Leader of the Scholarism group and poster boy for the pro-democracy riots, Joshua Wang, recently appeared in the Kowloon City Court to oversee the proceedings and defend Derek Lam from police accusations. Among the others arrested was Stephen Ku, editor-in-chief of University of Hong Kong’s publication, The Undergrad. If found guilty of rioting, all 37 of the accused, ranging from ages 15-70, could face 10 years in prison.
The Lunar New Year is in full swing across Asia and the crowds turn out in droves to partake in celebration and shopping. With the Lunar New Year comes a great migration of tourism from Mainland China to Hong Kong, typically for shopping and sightseeing. The massive turn out during the holiday season turns quite a profit for street vendors who wish to sell Hong Kong snacks to locals and tourists alike. Normally given breathing room, the Hong Kong police “turn a blind eye-” as a CNN report stated, to the practices of unlicensed vendors. Recent advancements of Hong Kong policies have made it near impossible to attain hawking licenses which has put a dent in the urban fast-food culture, allowing the rise of gentrification, rather than allowing businesses to flourish that are within prices for residents.
Taking place in the hotspot for tourism, Mong Kok district, the neon signs dazzled above the swell of protesters and the violent police forces. For some, the protest may come as an overreaction and the use violence by protesters an ever greater overreaction. Fires swept the streets, rocks and bricks were thrown at officers; the situation escalating to the point of one officer discharging two rounds into the air from his pistol. Mong Kok district commander Yau Siu-kei claimed that the officers feared for their lives against the wave of violent protesters and had to resort to pulling weapons on the protesters. While the people can be seen uprooting bricks from the sidewalk to chuck into the crowds of armed police, the officers were documented throwing bricks back into the crowds of people and allegedly beating subdued protesters.
For residents of Hong Kong, there is frustration over the interests of their police forces. When it came to the abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers by China, the police did not have much to say. Without a doubt, this recent riot is fueled by similar interests as the pro-democracy riots that we saw break out over Hong Kong last year, but the catalyst should not be ignored. A corrupted police force has begun tightening control over aspects of Hong Kong life as a reaction to political instability. The corrupting influences of China, having their hands shoved so far into the orifices of Hong Kong police and political figures to the extent that they have become nothing but hollow puppets should not go excused.
Besides the corruption of the Hong Kong police and their complete disregard for the kidnapped booksellers, this event is a severe injustice to the workers of Hong Kong. Crackdowns such as these arguably curtail the spread of foodborne illness and uphold health standards set by the state. The Hong Kong Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD, henceforth) has now taken a violent stance against illegal hawkers after years of licensing issues. Before licensing reforms in the 1970’s, hawkers used to be incredibly prevalent in Hong Kong with estimates reporting 70,000 hawkers as early as 1949. This access to labor for unskilled workers provided both a valuable service to the locals and created the street food culture that is so synonymous with Hong Kong now. Given the issues of noise pollution, littering, and congestion of the tight Hong Kong streets; the practice of hawking faced crackdowns in the 1970’s with a change to the issuing of licenses. Between 1974 and 2010, Hong Kong saw the influence of legal hawkers decline from 50,000 to as low as 6,000 in the city.
Dai Pai Dong is the name given to the food vendors which have a larger space than your typical on-the-cart food vendor. These Dai Pai Dong locations have historically provided access to cheap food to the labor force and provided a multitude of jobs around the city, rooting themselves into the culture of Hong Kong. From morning drinks and congee to convenient lunches of fried rices, noodles, and Hong Kong snacks; these stalls remain tucked away in between looming financial towers. That culture faces near extinction by the FEHD which has entirely disregarded the views of the Hong Kong citizens who hold both a sentimental attachment to these food locations as well as their necessity to communities. With only 25 of these locations remaining, South China Morning Post suggests that they will entirely die out by 2060. With the licenses for these locations either being stripped away by the FEHD buy-outs or by the death of license holders, there are no programs to issue new licenses.
Yip Po-Lam, a woman who supports a grassroots movement to preserve the rights of hawkers notes both tourism and economic concern as reasons for alleviating FEHD regulation.
“We see many overseas place – Japan, Korea, Singapore – that have kept them for a reason (DaiPaiDong). Supermarkets, which are owned by large corporations, will soon become the only choice. If you see it from poverty alleviation, culture and tourism or local economy point of view, then you should grow it.”
With the cost of Hong Kong business places and apartments soaring to dizzying heights, hawking provides the perfect avenue for unskilled, older, and poor workers a chance to survive within capitalism. For someone making street food, they can not compete to purchase the same business fronts as the likes of international corporations which have established fast-food up and down popular tourists areas like the Mong Kok district. Whereas McDonalds and international supermarkets have the capital to invest in property, these working class hawkers do not. The FEHD attempts to thwart the hawking culture not only detriments the working class but threatens the heritage of Hong Kong.
The drawbacks to unregulated hawking are obvious with fire hazards and pollution playing a major role. Perhaps though, the course of action here is not the death of hawking but instead the restructuring of select public spaces to allow vibrant dai pai dong establishments, better health regulations and even training on health codes for hawkers. There are measures available which could still allow the business of hawkers while preserving the health standards which the FEHD has set but they do not seem particularly interested in this mutually beneficial course of action. It may be easier to simply limit hawking outright, allow for the flow of corporate fast-food and then imply that unskilled workers find their wages within the restricted world of fast-food work.
Not only do fast-food establishments have a lot to gain with the working class being forced into the consumption of their products but the destruction of self-owned businesses can allow for a depreciation in wage standards among their employees. Capitalism strives on a basis of systemic unemployment and recent measures by the FEHD (while having their legitimate health concerns) are anti-worker and pro-unemployment. Systemic unemployment allows for capitalists to easily regulate the labor market by having a constant pool of unskilled workers to draw from. If there is no incentive for a member of the fast-food labor force to walk out of their job and into the world of hawking to make their own money, these corporations can have their stranglehold over the lifestyle of their employees. If a worker steps out of line or demands greater compensation for their labor, the capitalist class can find hundreds of others champing at the bit to take their place.
These riots, while having their roots within the pro-democracy protests should not be entirely conflated with the cause of democracy. What we are looking at here is a repression of the working class at the hand of Hong Kong government and now a violent repression by the Hong Kong police. Workers of the world can expect actions such as this with the conglomeration of businesses and as corporate influence drowns out protests of the working class.
While looking at the larger picture of Chinese influence in Hong Kong, we should not ignore the finer details that have been promoting anti-worker sentiment well before the Chinese acquisition of Hong Kong.