Anarchy in the MK
Walk along the pedestrianised zone of Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mong Kok as evening settles and prepare for all your senses to be smashed – repeatedly. Between the sales reps inexorably blocking your passage with their banners and leaflets, you’re bombarded by sweet and unsavoury smells as fulgent lights blind your eyes. Then there are the political activists who wax lyrical about the state of the world as they stand next to portable amps, which discharge a cacophonous mixture of street karaoke, beatboxing and live pop-rock. When we take our tour down the street, a man, for some reason, is balancing on a Rolla Bolla with a bunch of flowers in his mouth. Nearby, a group of footballers have gathered a sizeable audience as they perform tricks to music. In between the bustle, another guy nonchalantly appears to levitate, drawing a crowd of silent, bemused onlookers.
No matter if you love or loathe the madness, it’s undeniable that Sai Yeung Choi Street’s audacious atmosphere stands out against so many stagnant streets in Hong Kong, which are full of stationary cars and high end swank. But this is soon to change. The thoroughfare is currently pedestrianised from 4pm to 10pm between Monday and Saturday, and between midday and 10pm on Sundays. This scheme was introduced in 2000 by Yau Tsim Mong District Council because of ‘insufficient road space to accommodate both vehicular traffic and pedestrians’ – and it’s not surprising as more than 20,000 pedestrians every hour use the street at peak times.
But while Sai Yeung Choi’s night-time exuberance is fun for some, for others it’s a living nightmare. Residents have long complained about the noise from performers, and the pedestrianised hours have been reduced twice over the past three years. Then, on July 18, a motion was put forward to the YTM District Council Traffic and Transport Committee, claiming the street was in ‘anarchy’. The motion claimed it was too messy, that there were frequent fights and arguments, and that the noise was causing residents to suffer from depression. A public consultation was launched soon afterwards to find a solution.
Last month, acting after the consultation was over, the council unanimously (with one abstention) voted to open the street to cars during weekday evenings. So, as a result, over the next few months, Sai Yeung Choi will only be pedestrianised on weekends and public holidays.
Performers may be seething – but residents are rejoicing. Ms Lai – who didn’t want to use her real name – is a long-time resident of the street, living in a fifth floor flat. She says she’s pleased to hear the news. “I think the idea is good – because now we have too much noise,” she says. “The singing is very, very, very, very, loud! If [the singers] started right now, you and me could not speak. We couldn’t hear each other! We all have double glazing – but we can still hear the din. It’s a lot of trouble for us.”
Lai believes that visitors don’t always consider what it’s like actually living in the street. “All these people say that it’s nice,” she says. “But would you want to stay here every day? If you come to this public area, then afterwards you can go back to your home. We don’t like to hear this music, not every day. Every day here is bad.”
Performers, however, are clearly upset at the curb. Connie Ng plays regularly on the street with her band SMS (Sing My Song). She has strong feelings. “It’s unfair to cut the opening time to two days – that is killing the street, killing us, killing the busking,” she says. “It’s culture, right? It’s typical Hong Kong-style culture. The government is not listening to our voice. They are just taking advice from residents.”
Ng and other performers had three meetings with the council this year, as part of the consultation. “We presented to them our opinions and suggestions on how to improve... We gave them suggestions and reports – a lot of data – but they still keep trying to kill the city streets,” she says angrily.
The guideline for maximum noise levels in urban areas in Hong Kong is 70 decibels. Many have claimed that the noise from performers in the street exceeds this – but Ng is dismissive. “It’s not too noisy, not really,” she claims. “We have a noise meter. We measure every one or two hours. We try to keep it below the [recommended] levels.” Pedro Mendoza, another musician who regularly performs on the street, agrees. “We always get moved on by the police because some people complain the music is too loud,” he says. “We aren’t doing anything wrong – it’s art, it’s music; expressing our feelings. But they don’t understand.”
It’s clear that the issue divides the community. It was Chow Chun-fai, the council member for Mong Kok South, who put forward the original motion. “For our consultation,” he says, “we talked to 600 visitors and tourists, and about 100 incorporated owners from the street. The artists and the performers said [reducing pedestrian hours is] not fair for them. On the other hand, the residents, they have suffered for 10 years. When they bought the flat, there wasn’t any noise. Now they depend on medicine to sleep! How to solve this problem? I think this decision is a balance between residents and artists.”
One of the reasons the street has descended into such ‘anarchy’ is that there’s no way for the government to issue licences for performing. That means it’s hard to control who uses the street. In recent years, commercial companies have taken advantage of this and some heavily use the street for promotional activities. One shopkeeper has been concerned about promotional banners blocking her business. “I’m afraid that, if the cars start driving along here in the evenings, the banners will move in, closer to my shop,” she says.
The idea of licensing is something that Chow himself agrees with – but, for now, he acknowledges it’s not possible. “In other countries they issue a licence for performers and give them a place to perform,” he says. “I would be glad to see that! But in Hong Kong there is no regulation [for licensing performers] and no law! The government can’t do anything.”
When the new hours kick in, it will be on a six-month trial basis, according to Chow. After that, the outcome will be reviewed. The residents are surely pleased that they’ll finally be getting some peace and quiet, but many visitors have already expressed dismay at the news. They believe the pulse of this ebullient corner of the city is soon to fade. “This is what you imagine Hong Kong to be like, really,” says Peter King, a tourist from the UK who visits the street when we’re there. “I love the whole buzz about the place and all the signs everywhere and the madness of Mong Kok – the fact that it’s pedestrianised. If you open it to cars, you lose a lot of these performers. It’s a shame. A real shame.” Anna Cummins
For more information, see districtcouncils.gov.hk.