The music stopped at 10:30pm.
Police had begun clearing the pedestrian zone along Sai Yeung Choi Street South half an hour earlier, but a group of women in red dresses kept on singing. It was not until a patrol car reached their spot that they finally retreated to the curb.
The pedestrian zone was first introduced in 2000 to ease traffic – the brightly-lit thoroughfare in the heart of Kowloon was made vehicle-free during weekday evenings and most of the weekends. Over the years, it became a magnet for singers, dancers, photographers, artists, trinket sellers, fortune tellers, acrobats and magicians.
“I don’t really like this place,” a 20-year-old student surnamed Wong told HKFP.
“I love it,” said his girlfriend next to him.
Opinions on the pedestrian zone vary, but few were fans of the noise generated by competing performers battling for attention. District councillors said that nearby residents were suffering from depression because of the racket, whilst researchers had shown that noise levels topped 101.5 decibels – enough to cause hearing damage after prolonged exposure.
In 2013, the government made the pedestrian zone weekends-only, but the complaints continued. After years of debate, the Yau Tsim Mong District Council voted in May to shut down the zone entirely and the decision was made official earlier this month.
On Sunday, regulars at Sai Yeung Choi Street South seemed determined to go out with a bang. A criticism often levelled at them was that – unlike buskers – Mong Kok singers were mostly karaoke fans fighting to be the loudest.
“It’s going to be a great show,” singer Jasmine Pang told her audience, who roared with approval. “Do you want to dance tonight?”
Some performers, like Pang, have gathered a substantial following in the working class district, popular with tourists and shoppers. Her followers appeared to mainly be middle-aged men from around the neighbourhood, who were holding up flashing signs and yelling like teenagers.
The quality of performers along the pedestrian zone was notoriously inconsistent. While popular musicians like Lung Siu-kwan and C AllStar made their name in Mong Kok, in recent years budding musicians have all but given up on performing there.
In 2015, a localist crowd confronted a group of “singing aunties” – similar to the mainland “dai mas” who blast their music in public squares – claiming they were “too vulgar.” Police had to use pepper spray to break up an ensuing scuffle.
The physical clashes mostly subsided, but the reputation of Mong Kok performers steadily declined. It was not helped by subsequent media reports that showed commercial organisations turning the zone into a profit-making machine.
Mui, a singer in her 50s who is also known as Mong Kok’s Lady Gaga, defended her presence: “My music might not be the best, and it might be off-key sometimes, but this space gives us something to do.”
All was forgiven on Sunday evening as hundreds streamed into the area to give the performers a send off.
“I won’t forget you, and I hope you won’t forget us,” a Cantonese opera singer shouted.
But the party was soon over. There was some chatter on social media about whether to do a countdown, but when the clock struck 10, no-one bothered.
Police and officers from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department formed a line and pushed north, telling people to get back on the curb.
For some, it was a familiar sight. A similar operation in 2016 two blocks away had resulted in large-scale unrest as authorities sought to clear hawkers selling street food over Lunar New Year. It led to violent clashes and dozens of arrests.
But emptying Sai Yeung Choi Street South was a largely peaceful affair. A fortune teller climbed onto his stool and held a banner, apparently signed by many visitors, that protested the “killing of the street.” When the police came up to him, he left.
There had been earlier attempts to preserve the zone. A street performer applied for a legal challenge in 2014 against the shortening of its hours, but the case was never heard in court. Petitions occasionally popped up on social media in support of “street culture,” but nothing came of them.
With the pedestrian zone being increasingly unpopular with shop owners, workers, residents and passers-by, a shutdown came as no surprise. By May, a poll by the Home Affairs Department showed that 97 per cent of local residents were in favour of the move.
And yet, for most performers, their last hurrah on Sunday was more appearance than reality. A number of them made their living on tips, and already had plans to relocate. The Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, a tourist haunt near the Star Ferry pier, may be the next destination.
“There wouldn’t be as much open space in Tsim Sha Tsui, but I can’t think of anywhere else,” Mui said. “I hope I can continue to sing the Cantonese classics there.”
In the space of 40 minutes, the 450-metre stretch of Sai Yeung Choi Street South was cleared and reopened to traffic. On the side of the road, a leftover police banner read: “Please keep moving.”