Fung Lai Jing, 64, has been working as a newspaper hawker at the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier for over 40 years.
Located to the left of the entrance of the Star Ferry Pier, in front of the newly-opened Hong Kong Tourism Board Visitor Centre, the stall was once owned by Fung’s mother, who had operated it for over 70 years. However, when she passed away, Fung inherited her mother’s hawker license and took over the business.
Fung recalls helping at her mother’s stall since the age of 10.
The mirrors the tale of another newspaper hawker at the Star Ferry Pier, Mak Kuen Tat, 66, who also inherited his newspaper stall from his parents. “Most vendors are second or third-generation [hawkers]. No one new wants to enter into this profession,” he says.
History of newspaper hawkers
Located at the turn of nearly every street corner, newspaper stalls are a defining feature of Hong Kong’s streetscape. According to Chong Yuk-sik, a doctorate degree holder in Sociology, they first emerged in the early 20th century, as newspaper peddlers began selling revolutionary newspapers to promote China’s 1911 Revolution.
In her thesis titled “Legend at street corner,” Chong found that throughout the 20th century, the industry was promoted by the Hong Kong government as a means for the underprivileged and lower classes to earn a living. For example, in the 1950s to 1970s, recovered leprosy and tuberculosis patients were often referred by the Social Welfare Department to work as newspaper hawkers.
However, as Hong Kong’s economy developed and unemployment rates fell to all-time lows, the Urban Council stopped issuing new hawker licenses in the 1970s. This has contributed to the dwindling numbers of newspaper hawkers in recent decades.
According to reports from the Legislative Council’s Subcommittee on Hawker Policy, the number of licensed newspaper hawkers has dropped from over 1000 stalls in the 1990s to 417 in 2016.
Reasons for the decline in newspaper hawkers
In a written response to the Legislative Council, former Secretary for Food and Health, Dr. Ko Wing-man attributes this to “changes in the circumstances of society,” which has reduced public demand for the provision of newspapers by hawkers.
The includes the sale of newspapers from convenience stores, the circulation of free newspapers, and the rise of technology, which has provided citizens with access to the latest news updates at their fingertips. “Technology is so advanced that no one reads newspapers anymore. Nowadays, people just go on their phones,” Fung says.
While hawkers acknowledge that the distribution of free newspapers and sales from convenience stores affected their business “in the early days” when they first emerged, Mak points to a more serious problem in the future of the newspaper industry.
“Times have changed,” he says. “Nowadays, convenience stores don’t even sell newspapers anymore. This just shows how the market for print newspapers is declining.”
– Mak Kuen Tat, a newspaper hawker of over 40 years
The 2017 Reuters Institute Digital News Report showed an increasing trend towards online news consumption in Hong Kong, with over 80 per cent of the population relying on online news sources rather than print newspapers (48 per cent). In 2015 and 2016, two well-established newspaper brands, the Hong Kong Daily News and The Sun closed down due to reduced circulation and ad revenues.
Newspaper Hawkers: Adapting to survive
With declining readership, newspaper hawkers are finding it difficult to sustain their businesses through selling newspapers and magazines. Many have adopted various strategies to cope with changing consumer demands. For example, vendors in Tsim Sha Tsui have begun selling political and gambling-related books aimed at Mainland Chinese tourists, who cannot obtain these resources in the Mainland.
Furthermore, hawkers now rely on the sale of “additional commodities,” such as cigarettes and bottled water for the bulk of their revenues.
In the past, newspaper hawkers were only allowed to sell newspapers, magazines, periodicals and books. However, in 1990, the government relaxed the policy on the goods permitted for sale, allowing hawkers to sell eight commodities of small size to provide convenience to the public. In 2009, this was increased to twelve items, with the addition of bottled distilled water, trinkets, lai-see packets and prepaid SIM cards, as stated by Ko in his written reply.
However, this does not seem to be sufficient, as hawkers have begun selling other items such as postcards, umbrellas, and toys to earn extra income.
While postcards are generally allowed for sale in tourist-heavy areas like Tsim Sha Tsui, other items are strictly prohibited, says Lam Cheung-foo, Vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Newspaper Hawker Association (HKNHA). “Postcards are a type of ‘cultural item,’ like newspapers and magazines. They’re also needed by tourists,” he explains.
Selling toys, on the other hand, is more problematic.
Newspaper hawkers are allowed to sell “trinkets” – small accessories or jewellery that do not infringe copyright laws. However, toys are often protected by trademarks and patents. A customs raid last month seized HK$400,000 worth of infringing toys, stationery and clothing from retail stores and street hawkers across eight districts in Hong Kong, a government press release states.
Often times, toys are hung from racks or displayed in boxes outside the allowable space given to newspaper stalls, leading to street obstruction.
A newspaper hawker, who wished to remain anonymous, describes the measures vendors used to evade hawker control officers, who patrol the area at least once a month to check if vendors comply with licensing regulations. “We hide them (the toys) in the morning, because that’s when the licensing board show up. But we’ll start selling them in the afternoon again,” he says.
Lams says that the HK Newspaper Hawker Association is negotiating with the government to expand the variety of goods allowed for sale. However, discussions remain at the preliminary stage.
Although it is illegal for newspaper hawkers to sell these goods, Lam describes them as victims of their circumstances. “They’re forced to do it, because it’s simply not enough to sell newspapers anymore,” he says.
“It’s unfair, because we’re supposed to be a free market. Other businesses are allowed to sell whatever they want, but regulations on newspaper hawkers are stringent.”
-Lam Cheung-foo, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Newspaper Association
While many hawkers have innovated to keep up with the times, Fung’s stall at the Star Ferry Pier remains largely traditional – selling newspapers, magazines, cigarettes and bottled water. Fung says she is content with leading a simple life. “I don’t have to earn much,” she says. “If I can earn enough to eat two meals a day and have a healthy body, I’m content.”