Keywords Informality, confinement, formalization, squatters, street vendors. Corresponding Author Contact details

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Formalization as confinement in colonial Hong Kong

Authors: Alan Smart, University of Calgary

Josephine Smart, University of Calgary

Informality, confinement, formalization, squatters, street vendors.

Corresponding Author Contact details

Alan Smart

Department of Anthropology and Archaeology

University of Calgary

Calgary, Alberta

T2N 1N4 Canada



The nature of informal economies is structured by conflict between governmental strategies of confinement, to places, times, and how things are done, and the transgression of these confines by informal actors in pursuit of survival or advantage. We examine the influential development program of formalization in the context of these conflicts. Informality can be formalized in two ways, by eradication and by regularization. Building on our past ethnographic research on informality, we use released confidential Hong Kong colonial government documents to explore the informal discussions among policy makers about how to respond to informal practices, and how their understanding of street vendors influences their chose of confinement strategies. While insisting on eradication for squatters, various forms of regularization were attempted for street vendors.

Informal economies are shaped by efforts to confine them within official limits, of place, time and how things are done. During Chinese New Year 2016, the so-called Fishball Revolution brought local activists to the densely populated district of Mong Kok in Hong Kong to protect local “traditions”. These traditions involved both the food served, and precedents of tolerance for cooked food hawkers at this time of year. The spark, or excuse, depending on interpretations of the events, was a police crackdown on illegal street vendors. Unlike year-round food stalls, the ones that emerge at New Year “are not licensed and do not pay rent, but generally the authorities turn a blind eye to this”. In 2015 a similar crack down on unlicensed stalls failed. “This year, they tried again. News of the plan reached local activists who were keen to oppose any moves they deem to be threatening local traditions. On Monday, one group posted a video of the night market on its Facebook page, urging its supporters to come down and protect it. Dozens of people had gathered to defend the vendors by the time the inspectors turned up” (BBC News, 2016).

Too little is known about how and why these crackdowns occurred for this situation to serve as more than illustration of our topic’s importance. It also reveals the operation of temporal confinements. Practices that in another time and place would not have been allowed, perhaps punished, were until 2015 tolerated in particular places around the New Year.

Rich material we have located in the confidential documents generated by the colonial Hong Kong government provides a lens with which to explore governmental action, in particular its efforts to control informality. There has been a welcome resurgence of research on informality (Roy, 2009; McFarlane and Waibel, 2012) including street vending (Bhowmik, 2012; Etzold, 2013; Graaff and Ha, 2015; Hansen et al., 2013; Milgram, 2015). Such works add to the insights of the classic work done primarily in the 1970s and 1980s (Bromley, 1978; Lomnitz, 1988; Mingione and Goodrick, 1991), although too often failing to build on those important works. What this research tends not to include, however, is robust information about how governmental regulatory approaches are adopted and how they are implemented in practice.

Minutes of informal discussions about the merits and weaknesses of different approaches shed light on governmental informality, the other, much less known, dimension of informal economies. Formalizing agents themselves rely on informality to get their work done (Gandolfo, 2013; Gupta, 2012). We find the idea of “confinement” useful, but its potential requires its expansion beyond the initial spatial referent. To confine is to keep or restrict someone or something within limits (of space, scope, or time). Governments attempt to confine informal practices and economies by space, time and the scope of what is allowed. Selling things, our empirical focus in this article, can be confined to particular spaces (privately owned stores or official public markets), scope (various goods cannot be sold, or specific licenses are required to sell them, as with pharmaceuticals) or times (Sunday closing laws or bar closing times). Informality goes beyond one or more types of confinement. We can describe something as informal in situations where the goods and services transacted are legal, but the ways in which they are transacted are not. A business is not registered, taxes not paid, public space used without a permit, employees not covered by mandatory benefits, and so on. In the illegal economy, by contrast, the goods or services themselves are illegal: contraband drugs, fenced stolen goods, and so on. What makes an economic practice informal is its transgression of one or more of the types of confinement.

For instance, private business operates in public space, it is practiced in such a way as to break the rules, prohibited items are sold (cooked food or pirate DVDs), resources are moved in illegitimate ways from one domain to another (moonlighting, smuggling), etc.

Governmental control efforts meet responses from people trying to reduce the resulting negative consequences for them. If possible they take advantage of opportunities unintentionally created. Those working informally pursue advantages and may push the limits of where, when and how they do business. Informal practices transgress official boundaries. Informal practices are everywhere, but more common when people are confined to undesirable positions, with opportunities for mobility (social or spatial) blocked. Informal practices may allow those who are confined, such as residents of Gaza subject to import blockades, to reach out for resources denied them. In turn, controlling informality usually attempts to confine informal practices in ways that conform to boundaries.

Many governments have tried new ways to put informality “in its place” through formalization. This tries to make informal practices conform to formal rules or replace them. Formalization strategies have been promoted by supranational agencies, including the World Bank. We can see them as a component of neoliberal efforts to extend (formal) markets into arenas where they have been restricted or constrained by social, political or legal circumstances. Formalization can be achieved either by converting the informal into the formal (regularization) or by ending the informal practices (eradication), or both. Regularization can be achieved by changing the rules to make it easier for informal sector actors to conform. Or it can be produced by forcing informal actors to comply with more or less unchanged rules.

Informality can itself be a kind of confinement. Governments, or sometimes only their agents, may adopt practices of “toleration” of informality. Toleration allows illegal practices to continue, under particular extralegal conditions. It may be conditional on bribes, or the provision of political support to a party, faction or other grouping. The idea of “semi-formality” is applied by John Cross (1998: 35) to situations where “the government actively negotiates the implementation of regulatory norms without, however, changing the actual regulations”. When informality is accorded semiformal recognition, the government allows it to exist under a system of "extralegal" norms that emerge from conflict, negotiation and compromise (Cross, 1998). An administrative system is established that provides partial regulation without legalization. The difference between the semiformal and the legal, however, is that toleration and regulation are concessions rather than rights. Hong Kong still uses such concessionary formulae in its practices of displacement and urban renewal (La Grange and Pretorius, 2016). Semiformal regulations may change when the state feels that the system no longer meets its interests or new strategies for control of informal activities emerge.

Is formality or informality more confining? Doing things formally allows turning to the police or the courts, or getting formal finance for your business, as stressed by Hernando de Soto (2000). But it also restricts people to many regulations and procedures, often onerous for single person operations or small businesses. Operators may have little formal education, limited literacy, or difficulties in using the internet to file information required by agencies. Doing things informally, thereby avoiding red tape and various formal standards, is often the main competitive advantage of micro-entrepreneurs.

In policy circles, De Soto’s prescription for curing poverty by legalizing the informal assets of the poor has been influential (De Soto, 1989; De Soto, 2000; Gilbert, 2002; Varley, 2002). Formalizing informality has emerged as a key development strategy promoted by international agencies. The World Bank, described by Goldman (2008) as the “chief arbiter of development”, has been particularly active, along with over 40 other global institutions (Obeng-Odoom, 2013). UN-Habitat established the Global Campaign for Secure Tenure to pursue the Millennium Development Goal target on slums (Durand-Lasserve, 2006). Formalization programs, particularly titling of squatter property, have been widely adopted around the world. Yet, despite widespread acceptance of De Soto’s program for formalizing the informal, evidence for the consequences of formalization programs is weak, and when it shows negative outcomes, often neglected (Gilbert, 2012; Smart, 2010; Smart, 2003).

We distinguish between two types of formalization: eradication and regularization. Usually only the latter is thought of and promoted, and the former are the erroneous policies of the past, which are to be superceded by more enlightened approaches. Yet, both share the same end state, differing only in the path towards it. To eradicate informality is the old approach, still very common, which tries to turn informal into formal by ending activities: clear squatter areas, close street markets, prevent itinerant hawkers from operating. Regularization instead tries to bring informal practices into conformity with rules and practices that are supposed to apply to the formal sector. Sometimes this involves modifying restrictive rules to ease the burden of conforming. Convergence between informal and formal associated with successful regularization can move in either direction, top-down or bottom-up (Uzzell, 1990). Particular interventions may combine elements of each path, or appear ambivalent, or incoherent, between them.

Unlike most cities in the Global South, which it was part of in the 1960s, Hong Kong has exclusively focused on the first path for informal housing, eschewing regularization of existing informal dwellings (Smart and Smart, 2013). Street vending has been more complicated, shifting over time from licensing itinerant pedlars to moving street-based vendors into formally operated markets, while tolerating a few hawker permitted places. A sizeable literature debates the desirability of formalization. Some has focused on the outcomes of formalization programs in particular places. Little empirical work has been done on why such programs have been adopted and how they are implemented (Ghertner, 2010; Mukhija, 2003; Roy, 2009). We explore these latter questions through an historical case study of efforts by the Hong Kong government to formalize the informal sector. Their approach was mostly eradication of informality, by moving squatters and illegal hawkers into formal sector equivalents: public housing and off-street market complexes. Licensing of hawkers has been a long-standing form of regularization in Hong Kong, with complex consequences we consider below (Smart, 1989).

We then turn to attempts to integrate and coordinate the control of hawkers in public streets and Resettlement Estates in the 1970s, which had previously been differently administered by two separate agencies. Internal debates provide new insights into the limitations of such spatial confinement strategies. When a single agency controls informality in undivided urban space, the possibility of control surpasses that of situations with divided management of places where informal practices prosper. Instead of the usual dichotomy of formal city/informal city, we can see the operation, and clash, of two distinct regimes used to regulate informality, creating varying landscapes of informality. Each of these operated on the basis of informal customs and habitual practices within governmental agencies, but those followed in one varied from those in the other. The practical norms (De Herdt and Sardan, 2015) of the two agencies came into conflict over whether licenses or seniority should have priority.

The concrete practices of squatters and hawkers blur the boundaries between the streets and the Estates, as does that of the formal/informal city distinction itself. This case study brings together our separate research topics: squatters and their resettlement for X, and hawkers for Y. Y did 21 months of ethnographic research on hawkers from 1982-1985 for her doctoral thesis. X conducted ethnographic research on squatter clearance at the same time, and renewed ethnographic research on the topic from 1997-2001, since engaging in archival research on recently opened confidential government documents. Since we have previously published from the perspectives of the hawkers and squatters, and the new primary material to be examined here takes the form of documents and minutes written by government officers, we concentrate on what they do. From this, we see how official ideas about the characteristics and actions of informal sector actors influences policy choices and the implementation of those policies. Much more space and future research is needed to integrate ethnographic and archival research on how and why Hong Kong officials tried to formalize informality.
Confinement, Spatial and Otherwise

Work on confinement that is helpful for our considerations here often focus on spatial confinement. For example, Silvia Pasquetti (2015) challenges tendencies to dichotomize mobility and confinement through research on transnational practices among Palestinians confined within borders. Studies of transnationalism “typically frame it in opposition to the entrapping effects of borders”. Spatial confinement may instead spur transnationalism when local resources are constrained and migration is not a viable option. To be spatially confined against one’s will tends to provoke creative efforts to escape or subvert that confinement. Escape is not necessarily physical movement. Even when people escape over borders from dangerous circumstances, i.e. Chinese refugees in Hong Kong from the 1950s, survival may require going beyond the formal rules to make a living and find a place to live.

Immobility is often thought to result from power and poverty acting against the acceleration afforded by science and technology (Smart and Smart, 2012). Yet, technology can also be used to restrict and slow mobility, as with border surveillance (Salazar and Smart, 2011). Power keeps people in their places, unless it wants to move them, and poverty makes the choice to move more difficult. They may, however, in practice move more than those with greater resources, having no choice when subjected to displacement or the loss of employment prospects. If they cannot move, though, they can still reach out, as Pasquetti’s study reveals. Reaching out can be seen as a kind of social capital, which could be described locally as involving guanxi, connections (King, 1991).

Why is spatial confinement useful for governments? Movement can create governance problems. It can be used to avoid controls over practices that may be key to livelihoods (Heyman and Smart, 1999), such as smuggling. Immobilizing processes are key parts of the social engineering efforts of “high modernist” states (Scott, 1998). Spatial confinement may be essential if practices are to be confined in their scope. Semi-formality is often useful for this kind of control, selectively tolerating otherwise illegal practices in particular places, but only for “the time being” and in conditions that are at least formally revisable and subject to termination without consultation or compensation. Tolerated informality can be more useful for governments than either eradication (because it reduces housing shortages, creates jobs, increases supply of lower priced goods and services, and so on) or regularization (because of its costs).

Tolerated informality creates “grey zones”, where formally illegal practices can take place. Grey zones can be spatially delimited, such as red light districts. They can also be domains of practice accepted only within certain regulatory limits, e.g. illegal street markets that are raided when they openly sell pirate DVDs or designer goods that might cause difficulties in international relations. They can be grey in non-spatial ways, things that are more or less legal if they are done one way rather than another.

For Oren Yiftachel (2009) “gray spaces” are territories that only partially incorporate people into the city. They exclude from full, or any, urban citizenship. We see gray space from above when elites break the rules, or have the rules changed to fit the non-conforming uses of their mansions, golf courses or development projects. Informality is not only a tactic of the marginalized. Browne (2004) demonstrates the commonplace nature of informal transactions among Martinique’s middle class. Wedel (2009) documents the informality and illegality of the shadow elite, moving fluidly between government and private contracting.

Gray space from below are places of proletarian informality and illegality, ghettoes, slums and camps. Gray spaces are subject to whitening, the “tendency of the system to ‘launder’ gray spaces created from above”. They also respond to “the problem of marginalized gray space by destruction, expulsion or elimination”, in situations of blackening (Yiftachel 2009:92).

Formalization is a pattern of “whitening” neglected by Yiftachel. Important grey zones emerge in conflicts between what is formally legal and informally legitimate, or vice versa. Confinement of socially legitimate practices by prohibition fosters the expansion of informality and illegality. Both squatting and hawking in Hong Kong were located in zones of ambivalence between social legitimacy and formal illegality. Recognition of the informal legitimacy of finding a place to live and a way to make a living encouraged the toleration of these informal practices, particularly in the tough years of the 1950s (Smart, 2006).

Controlling and Formalizing Hawkers and Squatters in Post-war Hong Kong

Before the 1941 Japanese invasion, Hong Kong’s population was an estimated 1,640,000, up from 850,000 in 1931, swollen by a half million fleeing war in China. The population quadrupled from 600,000 to 2.4 million between 1945 and 1950. A United Nations report estimated that 1,285,000 people entered Hong Kong between September 1945 and December 1949 (Podmore, 1971). This influx, in a mountainous territory of 1000 sq. km. with the vast majority of people concentrated in less than 100 sq. km. around the harbor, overwhelmed the formal housing and economic systems. In 1950, the Korean War resulted in a blockade placed on trade with China. This attempt at spatially confining Communist China destroyed Hong Kong’s livelihood, based on servicing this trade since its establishment in 1841. The colony survived, and created a “Hong Kong miracle” through manufacturing. Manufacturing took place mostly in informally operated small and medium enterprises, many run out of already overcrowded homes or in squatter areas.

Although informal practices were found throughout Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, including within government as widespread corruption and “perks”, official concerns focused heavily on squatting and hawking in the streets. One of the sectors that expanded rapidly as a way to make a living was selling things in the streets. Numbers grew from perhaps 13,000-16,000 before World War II to about 70,000 in 1947, only 10,524 of whom were licensed (McGee 1974: 43). In 1981, there were 63,000 full-time hawkers (40,000 unlicensed), with many more involved part-time or as assisting family members (Smart, 1989). In 1983, street hawking contributed an estimated $1 billion to the economy, accounting for 11% of retail sales (Smart, 1989).

In 1948 there were only 30,000 squatters despite population growth and housing shortages. The government controlled all provision of land by leasehold, but failed to make much land available for development. With the failure of the formal private sector and government to provide nearly enough badly needed housing, the squatter problem became an informal solution for housing shortages. By the end of 1949 the number of squatters had risen to 300,000 from an estimated 45,430 in June 1949 (Smart, 2006).

High rents and low wages resulted in some of the highest population densities recorded, leading to pervasive efforts to gain control over a little more space for living or working. Control over public space required eternal vigilance. The capacity for control in Hong Kong was limited. Inability of the legal built environment to incorporate enough additions encouraged squatting, particularly once people discovered that they were increasingly likely to get away it. The larger the numbers attempting to build on unoccupied land, the harder it was for the authorities to stop it. The number of squatters soared in the 1970s until 1982, peaking at 800,000.

The government wanted to control space, but failed for the first three postwar decades. The Government owns all land: real estate is leasehold and the revenues generated have always been central to government revenues, often accounting for a third or more of the total (Smart and Lee, 2003). The beginning of squatter resettlement in the 1950s (which lead to one of the world’s largest public housing systems) offered a viable way to regain control of encroached space at a time when geopolitics constrained repressive clearance without rehousing (Smart, 2006). Prior to the 1984 agreement to return Hong Kong to China, protests by squatters increased the proportion of squatters eligible for public rental housing. This occurred in two ways: by extending formal “toleration” to squatter dwellings constructed after previous “final” registration surveys, and by removing restrictions on rehousing eligibility based on residence and household composition characteristics.

In 1984, a major shift in squatter regulation occurred. Within a year, all occupants of squatter areas were registered and only they were eligible for resettlement into public housing at clearance. The Government also managed to stop new squatting, although intensified use of existing structures increased the unauthorized population. The result is a bureaucratic ratchet: the numbers of households that qualify for resettlement can only decrease. In 2001 less than 75% of the residents of urban squatter areas, reduced to less than 20,000, were eligible (Smart, 2002). At the same time, Hong Kong policy was not to leave anyone genuinely homeless due to government action. A series of second-tier forms of housing for those excluded from the first tier: transit centres, temporary housing areas, and interim housing were the product of this requirement. Since 1984, squatter protests have been less capable of inhibiting government action than in the past. The removal of the possibility of Chinese support for the “victims of British imperialism” is an important contextual factor for the change. We are looking for other influences in our current research.

While street hawkers did not permanently occupy developable space, they produced congestion, sometimes completely closing streets to vehicular traffic and impeding pedestrians. Many consumers were attracted to the areas where they clustered, increasing the traffic issues. They slowed productive activities and raised costs, and were often accused of unfair competition with retailers who paid rent. These informal uses of space were seen by officials as problems to resolve. Debate arose on whether hawkers should be itinerant or “static”, what kinds of hawkers should be recognized, and how they could be best controlled to meet government objectives. The contribution that hawkers made to the economy, both for employment and the convenient provision of goods and services, was sometimes recognized. These issues were addressed in discussions around a revised hawker policy in 1969.

One memorandum circulated to the members of the Select Committee on Hawker Policy on October 8, 1969 stated that:

the hawker problem for 20 years has to a large extent centred on the question whether Pedlars should be converted into Fixed Pitch hawkers or whether the policy should be to encourage Pedlar hawkers and to keep Fixed Pitch hawking to the minimum. The 1957 report on hawkers recommended in favour of keeping hawkers small in their scale of operations and mobile. On the other hand, both the ‘Tingle’ plan and the ‘Revised Hawker Policy, 1969’ recommend that as far as possible all hawkers should be given Fixed Pitch status on the grounds that this will give them greater security with better business prospects, and at the same time make them more amenable to control.i

The decision, incorporated into the new Ordinance, was to convert “static pedlars”, i.e. those who de facto sold regularly from the same place and erected stalls without permission, “into fixed pitch hawkers with stalls of standard size”, three feet by four feet, known later as “modular markets”. Other hawkers would be “properly controlled in future, with particular reference to the times and places where they may hawk, and to the type of business they may do”, the three types of confinement we identified earlier. During a four month period in 1970, itinerant hawkers could convert to a fixed pitch license, but after that no new licenses were to be issued. The Urban Services Department and the Traffic Engineering Division would prepare a list of streets where hawkers would be permitted. The broad implications of these deliberations are reflected in those consulted about this list: representatives of Police, Fire Services Department, Urban Services Department (USD), Public Works Department and the City District Offices. (McGee [1974] counts at least seven departments concerned with hawker policy.) The modified list was then presented to the Standing Conference on Road Use for consideration.

Discussions of the various options offer insights into the concerns and objections of government agencies, and the implications of the choices adopted. At the May 1969 meeting, the Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police noted that the “long term aim was to eliminate hawking on the streets and that the immediate aim was to contain hawking on the streets. ... Regarding pedlar hawkers [he] commented that he considered that efforts must be made aimed at keeping them from the centre of the street”. This theme of “containment” comes up repeatedly. It involves management techniques that emphasize spatial confinement of the informal activities. Non-spatial confinement was also part of the repertoire of control. In a memorandum on the hawker problem written July 27, 1936 by the Chairman of the Urban Council, it was argued that the main reason to license hawkers was not for revenue but for the power to control them, not only in numbers but in terms of “what goods they sell and how, when and where they shall sell these goods” (quoted in McGee 1974: 36). Josephine Smart (1989: 41) found that many hawkers preferred not to be licensed due to how “the many constraints imposed by a license would affect their hawking operation unfavourably”.

The question of issuing more licenses to pedlars shows that officials might consider the likely reaction of hawkers, at least recognizing them as potential obstacles in the way of what they wanted to achieve. It was stated that “If pedlar hawkers are permitted to trade between rows of Fixed Pitch stalls, the Fixed Pitch stalls will immediately retaliate by moving out from their stalls to compete with the pedlars, effectively militating against all attempts at keeping order in the Fixed Pitch bazaars.” At the same time, other commentators recognized how little they knew about the actual nature of the hawker sector. Some called for a survey to be carried out.

A memorandum on “The basic hawker issues” by the Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs, discussed at the May 1969 meeting, has penetrating analysis. It noted “divergence between USD views on how to handle these places [old urban areas where hawkers are concentrated] and those of the Police ... and ourselves (me)”. The differences:

stem from different images of how hawkers operate. The USD view is that the trade is stable and that any changes are so marginal as to be capable of being ignored ... In ... this view the problem is to identify the traders, re-arrange them one by one more tidily and then, with some supervision, they will stay in place. True there will be problems of keeping out intruders when order is instituted and hawkers will have to be watched lest their stalls get bigger but the basic element of control can be the individual hawker whose trade, scale of business, rights to a license in life and death are all to be pronounced upon.ii

Here we can see a version of Michel Foucault’s Panopticon (Foucault, 1979). Registries and licenses serve the role of the guard tower, observing and regulating behaviour in order to promote virtue and control vice, leading to orderly use of the streets in which the sovereign permits the popular use of Crown land. To achieve this kind of control “all hawkers in the conglomerations are to be identified. There will then be a weeding out process after which man and wife cannot both hawk, father or son may carry on but not both, no person may control more than one of the standard units. Something like a 20% cut in the number of hawkers would probably result”.

The Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs described these plans as unrealistic due to:

a rigidity which is not built into the other image of hawkers. In this other image, we notice that many hawkers do not leave anything much behind at the end of the day’s business. There are trading hours and slack times. Some do business in the mornings, some at night. ... Above all there are tens of thousands of traders of initiative and drive, who will break an Urban Council By-law as soon as your back is turned. The picture is not of a stolid, static body of traders but of a dynamic and thrusting and competitive trade within which there is a stable core.

He offered a very different approach, which might be seen as Foucauldian liberal governmentality, where control is achieved through, rather than against, the liberty of rational subjects (Foucault, 2008). From the second view the “basic elements of control of such a trade must be crude. Hawkers and their patrons must be looked at in the mass rather than individually. The trick is to move when and where all is quiet – not to fight among the crowds at peak hours.” This strategy would first “establish areas or streets where they may trade”. The second step is:

to confine hawkers to these areas during trading hours. This will not always be easy but enforcement takes place at the periphery not in the centre. The rules are the simplest ones of demarcation. Outsider the hawkers’ areas no hawkers are allowed. Inside them, in the initial stages of control, the trade is left to its own devices. Hawkers may occupy large areas or small, operate from barrows, boxes or baskets, be selling a batch of reject shoes from a factory or vegetables to regular customers. They may have licenses or not, be old or young, husband and wife or whatever. None of this matters for the basic purposes of control in the interests of keeping streets as thoroughfares of some sort with congestion but not blockage for a few hours each day.

The goal is not to command the market, but to work by understanding it, and how it can undermine government’s intentions. Then, look for leverage points where action could be successful at least cost. The “essential measure of control ... is that when trade is over the whole area is cleared by street cleansing gangs ... This daily cleansing, which is done to a large extent now, if done completely will bring great improvements and ensure that small mobile traders will stay as such. It will mean that even during trading hours motor vehicles can pass through and, if there is a fire, space can be cleared very quickly”. This approach acknowledges that “control staff is meagre and cannot be expanded rapidly. Street cleansing gangs can be increased much more easily ... ... the daily control required is much simpler. It is feasible to plan to achieve control through-out the whole of the older parts of the urban area in months rather than years”. The “scheme acknowledges real limitations of manpower and preserves a considerable degree of flexibility. Hawkers can prosper. New men can give it a try. Those who fail have only to dispose of their stock lawfully not a pitch unlawfully as well. The scheme does not involve either a drastic reduction in the number of hawkers nor any spreading out of hawkers to new areas”.

This remarkable liberal proposal had limited influence. Hawker permitted places were set up, but licensing and managerial control through assigning particular stalls to particular individuals were central to the plans. Controls did not succeed in ending unregularized hawking at that time, however, and the end of licensing meant an increase in unlicensed hawking. Until the mid-1980s, these policies resulted in attempts to relocate hawkers into off-street hawker bazaars (the first established in 1958), an increase in regularized on-street hawking (hawker permitted places) and intensified efforts at controlling illegal street hawking through regular raids, arrests and confiscations. By relocating hawkers into off-street markets “it was hoped that the problems of obstruction, health hazards, noise and environmental pollution would be brought under control. At the same time, the transformation of street hawkers into market vendors would help to reduce the number of street hawkers. Contrary to expectations, many relocation attempts proved to be of limited success. A common response ... is to return to illegal street hawking” (Smart, 1989: 44). The aging of licensed hawkers combined with a government scheme to buy back licenses resulted in a decline of legal hawkers to about 7,000 in 2007 (Sataline and Renton, 2015). This dropped further to 6,347 licensed hawkers in 2014. We do not know how many people now sell illegally on the street, but there were 38,821 fines given to market vendors and hawkers, legal and illegal, that year. The breakdown between types is not given (Food Environment and Health Department, 2014). We need more research on the contemporary situation.

Integrating Divided Regimes of Hawker Control

Understanding confinement through formalization requires close attention to control techniques. We should also consider the reaction of the populations targeted by interventions (Smart, 1989). Interventions often result in project failure, and modify outcomes in ways unintended by government agencies. We illustrate this with a dispute on hawker control in government public housing, known as Resettlement Estates until 1973.

A quote from a memorandum discussed at a 1973 meeting of the Joint Select Committees (Hawkers, Resettlement, Markets & Abattoirs) describes problems that had emerged, thought urgently to need government action:

In the 1950’s, it was the policy of the Urban Council not to build markets inside Resettlement Estates but only to ensure that Fresh Provision Shops were provided – to be complemented by organised hawker bazaars. Hawkers were therefore encouraged to come into the estates to trade so that the shopping needs for meat, fish and vegetables of the estate residents would be adequately met. However, as the years went by, the number of hawkers increased, and in the absence of control traded where they considered business would be best, taking up a great deal of public space in the estates and causing serious fire, health and hygiene hazards, not to mention the problem of obstruction and the deteriorating environment. ... The 1967 confrontation caused the situation to deteriorate even further, and a joint policy review was carried out by USD [Urban Services Department] and RD [Resettlement Department].iii

The “1967 confrontation” referred to involved riots and bombings caused by extension of the PRC’s Cultural Revolution across the border. Confrontations, following the prior riot in 1966, revealed a gap between the colonial government and the Chinese population, increasing risks of further insecurity. The social reforms of the 1970s have been widely seen as a response. This may have been what was in mind when the Commissioner for Housing stated during a meeting in 1973 that long term solutions had to be worked out by all relevant Departments because actions against “large numbers of hawkers would obviously have social and political implications, and unilateral action by one department could lead to an embarrassing situation in an area which came under the control of another department”. The Assistant Director (Abattoirs Hawkers and Markets) also noted that “The situation deteriorated in 1967 when all forms of control ceased”. During earlier discussions of the hawker problem in 1971, the USD and RD both acknowledged the “urgency of the hawker situation in estates. The Director of Urban Services, encountering difficulties obtaining manpower for hawker work urged the Commissioner for Resettlement to build up his own hawker control teams … to contain the situation particularly in new estates”. These were named “Tidiness Teams” and carried out “operations to tidy-up the chaos in various estates”.

These efforts were reported to have achieved some improvements, but caused other bureaucratic problems. At the same 1973 meeting, it was noted that to “tidy-up the chaos” the RD:

found it necessary to carry out a number of measures which tended to depart from the Urban Council’s overall hawker control and licensing policies. For examples, the traders had to be resited, even on a temporary and unlicensed basis, into temporary hawker bazaars each trader being given a pitch of 6’ x 4’ (as opposed to the Council’s legal 3’ x4’ pitch). Also ... de facto hawkers found to be actively trading at the time of various RD surveys were given these trading sites, regardless of whether they held valid Urban Council hawker licenses or not.

Hawkers holding licenses but not trading in those places at the time of the surveys were denied sites. This led the “evicted licensed hawkers to complain to the Council that they had been unfairly treated – particularly as they claimed that they had not been trading in the allocated sites, not because they did not wish to do so, but because they had been driven out of the pitches by unlicensed hawkers” whom “Government had singularly failed to control”. The RD did not treat licensing seriously, as itinerant licenses had been easy to obtain prior to 1970, after which no more pedlar licenses were issued. The RD saw seniority, having done business in a particular estate for a significant period of time, as more important than a license, easily obtained until recently.

Efforts to improve conditions on the Resettlement Estates, prompted by the 1966 and 1967 riots, presented “formidable difficulties providing adequate marketing facilities and control of hawkers” in the Shek Kip Mei pilot project. These developments prompted a renewed discussion of hawker policy in 1973 which emphasized the problems caused by application of varying rules in different parts of the city.

The upshot of this situation was that after “protracted discussion” it was decided that “there must be ONE overall hawker policy applicable throughout the urban areas”. It should provide for “a reasonable measure of flexibility in implementation, particularly in Resettlement Estates where the de facto situation may well justify a somewhat different and pragmatic approach”. Any departure from the policy would need to be “clearly spelt out for consideration and endorsement by the Urban Council”.

The key reason for a coordinated policy was that “action merely to push hawkers out of Housing Authority estates into the adjacent streets or districts could have serious consequences for the Urban Council”, responsible for management of the urban areas other than the public housing estates. The Chairman of the Urban Council argued in 1973 that “it was not logical or desirable to have one policy and planning for estates and another policy and planning for outside”. The hawker problem was “an overall one which had not yet been brought under control and … had been with us for a very long time. While everybody would like to see estates well run, this should not be done at the expense of the surrounding districts”. Consultation would not be enough without unified control. Any action within the estates would worsen the situation outside, he argued.

The multiple and fragmented nature of any state must be kept in mind when looking at projects of confinement. If this is true for colonial and non-democratic Hong Kong, it is even more likely to be critical when political competition creates room for maneuver by informal actions. As L.P. Grace, Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police, said in the Joint Meeting of Jan. 30, 1973, in “handling a problem of the magnitude of hawkers a unified control vested in one authority was advisable”. Hawker groups would “exploit any administrative weaknesses by playing one authority against the other. Although there would probably be excellent control within estates, hawker problems around the periphery of estates would arise from hawkers who had been ousted and those attempting to gain access to trade within the estates”.

Redevelopment of housing estates, and the establishment of multi-storey markets within them, gradually achieved full control over unauthorized hawkers, ever fewer in Hong Kong. Illegal hawking appears at present to be confined to fringe areas or to periods of time when enforcement teams are not likely to be on duty, but more ethnographic research is needed.


Jennifer Robinson (2002) calls for more attention to “ordinary cities” and the ordinary practices that make life possible within them for non-elites. As Southern cities continue to become ever more the vast majority of the global urban population, how governments respond to their informal “idioms of urbanization” will be of great developmental importance (Roy, 2011; Roy and AlSayyad, 2004). As more of the world’s economic growth is based in them, policy towards urban informality takes on increasingly crucial importance. Yet we must keep in mind that informality also has great importance in the global North (Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris, 2014; Tanasescu et al., 2010), especially after economic crisis and in the wake of austerity programs (Narotzky and Besnier, 2014).

Informality offers possibilities for bottom-up, generative planning and development that may intensify urban diversity and vibrancy. Excessively regulatory planning can create unattractive and sterile spaces, even discourage innovation and participation. Many important questions remain open. Does formalization of informality achieve positive outcomes? Do informality and its advantages rely on retaining the advantages of operating in ways distinct from the formal sectors of the economy? Should we try to bring the sectors together by liberalizing formal regulations, or by extending existing regulatory practices to fields currently operating under distinct circumstances? Managing the intersection between formality and informality may help us find ways to create jobs for swelling urban populations and provide affordable housing and services for them. The tendency of much middle-range formality, i.e. most non-elite architecture, streetscapes and retail outlets, is to bland uniformity. Can we foster the diversity, vitality and excitement of ordinary cities and ordinary places without preserving at least some kinds of informality? How should we best confine informality, in temporal-spatial and regulatory terms? How might this best vary by specific industry (do we need tighter rules on cooked food for public health reasons, for example), parts of the city, or the degree of development of the city?

Hong Kong’s eradication of much of its earlier persistent informality offers lessons for other jurisdictions, both in terms of what conditions make this possible, and whether or not it is desirable. Is eradicating informality a reasonable goal in a place where income inequality has soared to one of the highest levels among rich countries? Increasing reliance on the financial sector rather than manufacturing for growth is part of this, but growing barriers to small business in a very high rent city is likely another factor. Eroding chances to use informal means as a path to self-employment may have negative consequences for the livelihoods of many, particularly youth and senior citizens.


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i Except where otherwise noted, the information and quotations for the remainder of this section are from confidential document “HKRS 488-3-15” accessed at the Hong Kong Public Records Office.

ii HKRS 684-2-10.

iii Except where otherwise noted, the information and quotations for the remainder of this section are from confidential document “HKRS 163-9-481” accessed at the Hong Kong Public Records Office.

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