In 1991, I arrived in Hong Kong overland from Egypt with two friends. We flew from London to Cairo, and took buses and trains through Jordon, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and then into China and down to Hong Kong. Bit of a rush in about 12-weeks.
I’d been to Hong Kong before and noticed sellers with flattened cardboard on the bridges and pavements. I thought this was a good idea. So we brought papyrus paintings in Egypt and mailed surface from Jordon to Hong Kong.
Our first night selling we came down the Chung King Mansions lift with two suit cases crammed with papyrus, with the intention to set-up outside on the Nathan Road. However, in the lift was another British hawker advising us we would get immediately arrested there – so he took us to Mong Kok. A nearby district, listed in the Guinness Book as the most densely populated area on the planet.
From there we made a killing – sometimes taking over US$200 an hour. Even better was Immigration Walkway in Wan Chai at lunchtimes – but I did get arrested there once.
In Hong Kong police usually leave hawkers alone. The job of clearing the streets is left to the Urban Council, who target individual sellers’ and organize their team to grab him fast. Then they take you to the police station in a pick-up with caged sides. There it’s US$60 bail and in court within a week. Everything on display is confiscated and everyone gets about a US$80 fine, although it increases on multiple offences. I have one friend who’s been prosecuted 18-times.
The technique is to watch out for these guys while selling. Not easy, as it gets very busy. On any suspicion, everyone shuts shop and runs. Fast. Just like in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Once a friend pretended to go for me: about 50-sellers panicked with jewellery and bags flying through the air like confetti!
At least you get a sense of sport in Hong Kong. When I tried it in the UK at the centre of Norwich with silk ties at Christmas, I got arrested before even setting up.
There are still a few hawkers in Hong Kong, but most have put away their boards as the authorities tightened up. Some elderly sellers were even killed – scrambling away with trolleys of boiling oil. However, on the Mainland, it’s a lot easier.
At one time the Shenzhen border to Hong Kong was a gauntlet of limbless beggars and aggressive sellers. Nowadays, hawkers in Mainland China have to operate in more discreet locations, where local authorities turn a blind eye at certain times. In Guangzhou, formally known as Canton, busy late-evening sidewalks are awash with peddlers of every type of food imaginable.
Fermented bean curd is the smelliest hawker food– also known as stinky tofu, for its powerful whiff like strong camembert cheese. The Chinese and Japanese have been scoffing this for over 1,000-years – and it’s not true their small noses are less sensitive, quite the reverse in fact!
Barbeque pork and chicken on bamboo skewers is everywhere – freshly cooked on long narrow troths especially made for the job and to conserve charcoal. This is usually cooked by Xingjian migrants who look more Pakistani than Chinese. Very tasty too sprinkled with a little cumin.
Common in Beijing, Bangkok too, as baby BBQed sparrows – even the beaks are soft enough to crunch.
Less bizarre is sticky rice – and more common to the Western palate is boiled corn-on-the-cob, oysters, and fried or steamed noodles. Roast jacket potatoes are of the sweet potato variety without butter.
Overall, hawker food in Mainland China is excellent – and much more fun than the “sterile” food halls enforced in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
See my personal site at NigelHayMckay.com