Has Mong Kok's pedestrian zone lost its busker appeal?

Updated: 2013-11-29 07:00

By Jony Lam(HK Edition)

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It seems rally lovers in Hong Kong were too busy fighting the lost cause of bringing a TV station back to life that they have neglected the tiny pedestrian zone on Sai Yeung Choi Street South in Mong Kok.

Currently, the road section in Sai Yeung Choi Street South is closed to traffic from 4 pm to 10 pm Monday to Saturday and from noon to 10 pm on Sunday and public holidays. After district councilors voted near-unanimously to limit road closures to weekends and public holidays, the pedestrian zone will be reopened to traffic on weeknights.

This sounds to me that our government is somehow contradicting itself. The government website tells us: "In order to promote walking and to improve the overall pedestrian environment, the Transport Department is following an environmentally friendly approach in managing traffic and transport matters and is committed to putting more emphasis on the interests of pedestrians. Since year 2000, the Transport Department has been implementing pedestrian schemes in several areas, including Causeway Bay, Central, Wan Chai, Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui, Jordan, Sham Shui Po, Stanley and Shek Wu Hui."

The objectives of this "pedestrianization" policy include improving pedestrian safety and mobility, promoting walking as a transport mode, discouraging access for non-essential vehicles, reducing air pollution and improving the overall pedestrian environment.

At the same time, our government also tried to make us believe that it supports a burgeoning culture of busking in Hong Kong by hosting its own street performances. The program, codenamed "Open Stage", was curated by a panel of judges who deemed whether a performer was worthy of stage time. Performances were originally held at three locations, and then they are confined to the Sha Tin Town Hall only in 2011. Now the program seems to be gone altogether.

"In view of the drop in performance sessions in recent months at some venues partly due to performers' preference to perform in other areas like streets in Mong Kok, the department would continue the scheme only at Sha Tin Town Hall," says Magdalene Chow, then senior manager with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department in 2011.

The problem of "insufficient road space to accommodate both vehicular traffic and pedestrians" led to the introduction of pedestrianization in 2000. Now that pedestrians have had their time, are we witnessing the beginning of increased vehicle use? Or is the closing of the Sai Yeung Choi Street South pedestrian zone the government's reply to buskers who are reluctant to perform in the areas designated for the "Open Stage" program?

An interesting aspect of this episode is the lack of public outcry over what may be framed as a restriction of the freedom of expression. It is clear, however, that local residents and shop owners are happy with the reduction of "pedestrian hours"; and I'm not surprised that the district councilors are eager to please their voters. As for the public's silence, I wonder if it can be interpreted as consent.

I must say that the district council has made a wrong decision. Street performances are starting to get pretty good in recent years; the last thing we need is impediments to their development.

Faced with the residents' complaints of noise and congestion, the district council has only considered three options - to maintain the status quo, to restrict pedestrian hours to Fridays and Saturdays only, or to restrict the hours to weekends and public holidays only. These options are uninformed, unimaginative and unprofessional.

Street performances around the world are regulated by licenses and enforceable rules. For example, in Auckland, New Zealand, sound levels from any street performance act must not cause the performance to disturb customers or staff of nearby businesses, or be greater than usual background noise when heard from 30 meters (horizontal or vertical) away from where the performance is taking place. Council warranted officers are empowered to direct a person to reduce excessive noise.

A licensing system is outside the curfew of the district council. Instead, it is the responsibility of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, if it really wishes to promote leisure and culture.

The author is a current affairs commentator.

(HK Edition 11/29/2013 page9)