The last of the street hawkers

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Prior to 1979, the government had issued over 300 itinerant hawkers licences. Today, there are estimated to be only around 30 left, as these street hawkers are slowly but surely being phased out. Lisa Cam talks to four merchants about their craft, the history of hawking and the future of Hong Kong's street food culture. Photography by Calvin Sit


Mr Lau and Ah Gwun
Clay Pot Pudding mainstay

On most days, Ah Gwun and her octogenarian father, Mr Lau, stand on a corner just below Lan Kwai Fong, watching over their cart of delicious put chai ko ($5) – a sweet pudding favourite. "That's my dad," says

Ah Gwun, standing behind the cart while she quickly calculates a sale in her head stimultaneously. "He's the holder of the hawker licence. I can't operate the stall without him present."

Ah Gwun's father, Mr Lau, has been selling these clay pot puddings since the late 1940s. "I used to sell them for 10 cents each and I'd split it in half for people who were buying to share," he says with a grin. "Life was a lot harder back then."

Even after more than six decades, the art behind the dish remains very traditional. "We make everything ourselves from scratch and we don't add flour to set the pudding so there's no sediment," says Ah Gwun, as she points to one of the bowls in the bottom. Indeed, the pudding, which consists primarily of rice, beans and sugar, is sweet and chewy down to the bottom of the bite, with no floury aftertaste. "My son helps me grind the rice the previous night. But if my dad is not feeling well or if it rains, we won't open that day."

Though Ah Gwun's children want her to spend her retirement at home, she explains, "I get bored. I've been helping my dad since he was wheelchair-bound. The itinerant licence will expire when he passes and we just want to sustain the business [and the tradition] a little longer before he does."

Corner of D'Aguilar and Wellington St, Central. Closed Mon.


Mr Tong
The Lemon King

"You can add bitter liquorice root powder if you have a sore throat, but most people don't if they're snacking," says Mr Tong, the owner of Sheung Wan's Lemon King. Preserved lemons (around $24 a bag), are taken like cough drops in Chinese medicine as well as serving as a zingy tasty snack, and it's a tradition that's been Tong's livelihood for much of his life. Indeed, Tong's tiny Wing Kut Street stall faces the exact spot where his father – the original Lemon King – used to operate his cart. "I was arrested twice," he laments. "My father got sick in 2007 and I tried to operate the cart for him but I got arrested for not being the licencee."

These incidents weren't the only time Tong has run into trouble with the authorities. In 2007, his licence was revoked for the violation ('we tried to rent a shop nearby, but we were losing business') and things only took a turn when celebrity food critic, Chua Lam, published an article on the plight of the street hawker. Tong proudly shows off a copy of the story, like a battle scar. He smiles: "After this was published, I was issued with a permanent hawker licence."

Even though licences aren't issued any more, Tong represents the remaining hawkers in the area and often meets with legislators to voice their interests, despite the dwindling numbers of hawkers.

Wing Kut St, Sheung Wan. 9252 2658. Closed Sun and public holidays.


Mr and Mrs Yu
The dragon beard candy hawkers

In days gone by, finding the local dragon beard candy hawker was a prime treat for Hong Kong children. Predominantly unlicenced, these candy men would carry a tin box like a messenger bag and sell the soft luscious treat on neighbourhood corners.

That's how Mr Yu remembers his early days of selling dragon beard candy ($15 to $25), back in the 1960s. "I lost my job selling pharmaceutical supplies and had to make a living," he says. Eventually, Yu was granted an itinerant licence. But as he's grown older, Yu has found it increasingly difficult to continue to work in such a mobile manner. Yu and his wife now rent a spot at the entrance to a residential building in Mong Kok to peddle their craft.

The Yus boast that their candy can last unrefrigerated for a month. The trick, they say, is in the layering. Malt candy is boiled until clear and then pulled by hand like toffee until it has a soft tassel-like consistency and then gently wrapped around desiccated coconut and sometimes peanut filling. "It's hard labour on the hands," says Mrs Yu. "Combine that with my husband's heart condition; we have decided to actually retire in a few months."

When asked if they're mentoring anybody to take over the business, Mr Yu exclaims: "Who wants to sell candy in the sweltering heat any more? My own children are all white collar. The craft will die with me, I'm afraid."

Front stoop, 42-44 Sai Yeung Choi St S, Mong Kok.


Mr Cheung
Tai O's Egg Waffle Uncle

Off the beaten track, in Lantau's Tai O fishing village, is one of Hong Kong's best egg waffles ($7). The crispy crust of the waffle fragrantly crumbles on the palate, leaving a small yolk of cake in your mouth to delightfully chew on before it all fades away. These egg waffles are so light and airy they weigh almost less than half of the usual egg waffles. "This recipe took me two years to perfect," says owner Mr Cheung. "From getting the batter right to gauging the optimum heat to cook these in, you should have seen how many times things went wrong." Mr Cheung started making egg waffles in the distant island as a post-retirement gig in 1999, "My wife was from Tai O and I didn't like the city life."

Mr Cheung currently leases his premises and so far he hasn't felt the pinch of rising rent. He says he hasn't got a stall or hawkers licence either. "Yet!" he says. "I haven't been bothered by these issues yet!" Does he suggest moving to the outer islands as a solution to other hawkers? "It's not easy out here, as there's only foot traffic on the weekends and holidays. I wouldn't suggest it to anyone trying to make a living."

59 Kat Hing St, Tai O, Closed Wed.

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