Street battles between protesters and police erupt on the first day of the Year of the Monkey in Hong Kong’s most serious street violence in nearly half a century. Was this a hawker riot or civil unrest?
On Chinese New Year Day, officials of Hong Kong’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department descend on a side street in a crowded working class neighborhood to evict illegal cooked food hawkers. A night of almost unprecedented street violence ensues.
As Hong Kong tries to make sense out of the violent confrontations between police and protesters over the illicit sale of fish balls on the evening of 8 February 2016, I find another issue equally perplexing: why do so many people like fish balls in the first place?
And how could the disruption of the sales of fish balls lead to the worst civil unrest in Hong Kong in nearly half a century?
I find the texture of fish balls a bit rubbery, with an unpleasant grittiness added to the unpleasant mix.
Fish balls are, essentially, flavourless, with most of the taste coming from the broth or sauce they are cooked in.
Fish Balls 101
In case you were wondering what fish balls are …
Fish balls are not the testes of fish, as the English name of the dish implies. A more literal translation of the Cantonese term would be fish eggs, but that nomenclature would be equally misleading to English speakers.
Fish balls are NOT the reproductive “cells” (i.e., eggs) that result when a female fish becomes impregnated, either.
Simply put, fish balls are made from ground up fish, flour, and water. A bit of subtle seasoning is added for good measure.
The concoction is rolled up into little balls – thus the English term, fish balls.
Most of the fish balls sold by hawkers in the alleys and back streets of working class neighborhoods in Hong Kong, Macau, and other Asian cities are cooked in a thick curry-flavoured gravy and served on little wooden skewers.
Hong Kong Street Life
The hawking of cooked foods, fresh fruit, clothing, and other items is an integral part of street life in many Asian cities, and Hong Kong is no exception.
Some complain that street-hawkers enjoy an unfair advantage to conventional businesses because they don’t have to pay rent.
Others would maintain that everyone has to start somewhere. And many hawkers do eventually save up enough money to open a stall in a wet market or a shop in a mall and pay rent like everyone else.
But the practice does present environmental challenges, especially given the fact that most hawkers don’t clean up after themselves after they call it a day.
Then there is the issue food safety. Is the food prepared in sanitary environments? Is it properly refrigerated before it is cooked?
Hong Kong’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has been trying to rid the city of street hawkers for decades.
The issuing of new hawking licenses was, in fact, halted in the 1970s. And their numbers have been dwindling ever since.
As soon as food hawkers set up their stands, however, there is seldom a shortage of takers. Passers-by enjoy the cheap eats – and the convenience and fun of eating them on the run.
And let’s face it. Hawking does provide an important social safety valve in a city without much in the way of social services.
For a relatively small capital outlay, someone without an employable skill (or temporarily unemployed) can set up a business and earn his keep, while selling a product that is clearly in demand.
The number of hawkers tends to swell during holiday periods because many people need extra cash, some products are only in demand once a year, and business is better because there is more foot traffic.
Monkey See, Monkey Do?
In years past, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has tended to turn a blind eye to the practice of illegal hawking during Chinese New Year and other festive occasions.
Not so on the evening of 8 February 2016, the first day of the Year of the Monkey.
A team of officials from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department was deployed to Portland Street in the heart of Mongkok, a working class district that was the site of some of the more chaotic incidents during the Umbrella Movement in 2014.
When the officials tried to clear the street of illegal hawkers, they met resistance, plastic water bottles were thrown, and the police were called.
The police arrived at about 10 pm and departed shortly thereafter. They returned at 11.45 with a portable podium, which seemed to anger the crowd. The situation escalated, and newspaper reports of exactly what happened next are contradictory.
Did the crowd provoke the police? Did the police provoke the crowd? Was this a simple case of monkey see, monkey do?
Were radical activists already in the crowd planning to incite violence? Or did radical activists catch wind of the violence and arrive on the scene with their own axe to grind?
What everyone agrees on is this: at 2.05 am, a policeman pulled a gun, aimed it at the crowd, and then fired 2 warning shots into the air.
Instead of intimidating the crowd, the shot caused the throng to grow angrier and more aggressive. Chaos ensued for the next 5 hours.
It was the worst street violence Hong Kong has witnessed since pro-Communist riots rocked the then British Crown Colony in 1967, when fully 51 people died in the turmoil, which lasted more than half a year.
But how did they die, and who caused most of the deaths? More on that tomorrow …