In a remarkably short-sighted move, the Yau Tsim Mong District Council has voted to remove the Sai Yeung Choi Street pedestrian zone on weekday nights, leaving it closed to cars only at weekends. It cited the numerous complaints from residents and shopkeepers.
The area around Sai Yeung Choi Street embodied the old joke: “Nobody goes there any more, it’s too crowded.” The absence of adequate management led to a free-for-all atmosphere, in which broadband internet salesmen, street performers, impromptu dancers, hawkers, photographers, political protesters, touts and leaflet distributors congregated.
Instead of regulating the space, however, officials simply opted to cut back the hours. The government has so far failed to set up a unified framework to manage pedestrianised streets so users can coexist in relative peace. There has been no serious attempt to control commercial activities in pedestrian zones and, aside from an unsuccessful pilot programme in Tsim Sha Tsui three years ago, there has been little discussion of licensing street musicians.
The enforcement of existing laws has been fragmentary; departments have insufficient resources to deal with violators and pass responsibilities off to each other. Cutting back the hours was equivalent to taking a sledgehammer to a problem that needed a scalpel. In doing so, the district council threw out most of what made the street valuable, without necessarily making it more pleasant.
Despite its problems, over the past 13 years, Sai Yeung Choi Street has fostered an incredibly vibrant street performance culture that previously had no space to exist. Although it failed in its original purpose of alleviating congestion on the pavements, as a space of creativity and social interaction, it was a runaway success.
It became a hub of Hong Kong’s youth culture, the home of everything ephemeral and offbeat. It was the place where teenagers strutted the latest fashions, where technophiles lined up to see the latest gadgets, and where hobbyists of every stripe launched their hunts for prized collectibles.
Around Sai Yeung Choi Street grew an ecosystem of niche shops, upstairs cafes and independent bookstores; not on the street itself, where the rents were astronomical, but in nearby tenement blocks and rabbit warren malls. Take away its beating heart, and the limbs might also wither.
With the return of vehicles, Sai Yeung Choi Street will probably be returned to the state it was in during the late 1990s, when pedestrians elbowed each other along an overcrowded pavement, breathing in traffic fumes and spilling out onto the road in defiance of the railings installed by the Transport Department. Roadside air pollution will worsen, and the number of traffic accidents will increase.
It is reported that 13,000 pedestrians currently use the street every hour during weekday evenings. Where will they all go?The answer, of course, is that many of them will choose to go elsewhere, and the remainder will avoid staying there for long. The shopkeepers who expected an improvement in business following the cancellation of the pedestrian scheme might see a decline in sales instead. And Sai Yeung Choi Street will become just like every other street in Mong Kok.