I must congratulate the Yau Tsim Mong District Board on its success in making Hong Kong an international laughing stock. Wherever planners and traffic engineers gather together, recent events in Sai Yeung Choi Street will occasion incredulity and hilarity.

“They had a pedestrianised street which was heaving with people, attracting visitors from far and wide … and they unpedestrianised it… no, seriously I’m not kidding. The local council wanted the cars back.” There won’t be, as they used to say, a dry leg in the house.

Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

This is not rocket science. The key to a clean, pleasant and attractive urban environment is to separate cars from people. Part of this is achieved by building by-passes and such so that traffic is not forced through town centres by want of alternative routes. And the other part of it, having ensured that alternative routes are available, is banning traffic from places where lots of people want to walk, shop, and enjoy themselves.

I imagine the majority of European cities now have pedestrianised parts in their centres, and many towns likewise. This is a successful recipe not just for architectural jewels like Prague and Salamanca, whose medieval street plans are hopelessly unsuitable for cars anyway, but also for gritty capitals of the industrial revolution like Glasgow and Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Residents of these cities will be baffled by the explanation given by Hong Kong officials – that the pedestrianised street was a problem because the buskers made so much noise.

There are a variety of way of regulating busking. You can license the buskers themselves, thereby controlling the numbers and also perhaps introducing a measure of quality control.

When I first visited San Francisco they had just introduced a licensing scheme for buskers. The number of applications was overwhelming so there were competitive auditions. The resulting busking was excellent. It seemed that most of the people who won licences were either music students paying their way through college, or music graduates who had found no other job which used their expensively-acquired skills.

If this is too complicated you can have a number of permitted pitches a suitable distance apart, and open them to public bookings, like public squash courts. You can ban busking in sensitive spots, and encourage it in neglected ones.

The problem in Sai Yeung Choi Street did not, apparently, become acute until local shopkeepers (presumably not the same ones who are now complaining about the noise) started allowing people to run power cables out of their shops into the street.

Previously musicians had to use comparatively feeble battery-powered amplifiers and speakers. With mains power, all limits were off and an arms race ensued.

Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

The noise level produced by buskers is another thing which can be controlled in a variety of ways. In some places, you are not allowed electric speakers at all, as is the case in Hong Kong parks. In Paris, I think, the rule is that passers-by must still be able to conduct a conversation in normal voices. You can have a limit in decibels or a less formal approach. In the London Underground busking is explicitly banned, but performers who are moderate in volume and reasonably melodious are in practice not disturbed.

In most of Hong Kong, the police will come and intervene if anyone complains to them about noise. I speak from experience. Before my bagpipe band performs we will wish, however carefully we have rehearsed, to have a little warm-up warble out of hearing of the audience.

When we do this outdoors it often produces a visit from the police, usually at about the time we have finished. And indeed official spokesmen do occasionally claim that there is sufficient legislation in Hong Kong to regulate people who produce excessive noise or other nuisances in public places. But not in Mong Kok, apparently.

The decision to depedestrianise Sai Yeung Choi Street produced a little flood of interviews with people who had performed there. Only two of them said they had encountered any form of regulation.

See also: Video: The day the music died – Mong Kok’s all singing, all dancing pedestrian zone finally shuts down

One group who turned up expecting to perform in the street were told that there were “regulations” and they could not simply turn up and play without the permission of those who “run the street.”

Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

A man who was actually performing there was approached by a civilian with a large and musical family. This person said that his sister wished to use that spot and his brothers would be very upset if she was not allowed to do so. The performer moved along.

So it seems someone was in charge, it just wasn’t the people who you expect.

After the street reverted to traffic one official said that the government would now wait for the public to decide how it wanted buskers to be regulated. I fear the government is doomed to disappointment.

Regulating buskers is one of those matters like street lighting or rubbish collection on which the public’s preferences are for a particular outcome. The nuts and bolts of how it is achieved are of no interest. In any case, it appeared, as the media spotlight swung onto buskers generally, that the present system worked quite well… except in Mong Kok.

We cannot at this point avoid one of Hong Kong’s dirty little secrets, which is that in certain parts of the territory there was for a long time a tacit modus vivendi (way of life): underworld figures could continue with their “business” as long as they stuck to the sort of activities which involved catering for more or less satisfied “customers”: like vice, dope, gambling, contraband and “protection.” No mass brawls, no drive-by shootings, no horse’s heads in law-abiding citizens’ beds, and so on.

Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

As a result, when I was a volunteer helper in the clinic of the late Mrs Elsie Tu, there were places where it was considered a waste of time to complain about criminal activity to the police. This was a long time ago and the other places may have changed. It appears that Mong Kok has not.

This became fairly obvious in the Occupy period, when occupiers were harassed and occasionally assaulted by mysterious male civilians who were not policeo officers but seemed to be on cooperative terms with them.

It was observed towards the end of the Sai Yeung Choi Street pedestrianisation period that busking in the usual sense had largely been displaced by a sort of rent-a-mike karaoke run out of some of the shops, no doubt to somebody’s profit.

This is why we shall not see an inquiry into the “fishball revolution.” It might find (or at least it might be told – some things fall on deaf ears on these occasions) that the original trigger of the violence was not a localist plot, but resistance by the entirely non-political figures who usually “run the street” to a group of traffic cops violating the usual understandings.

If that was the case it would not, I stress, in any way excuse the violence by other people later. And you are free to dismiss it as speculation anyway. Unless you work for the Hong Kong Government, in which case you can shut up. Those who could find the truth and will not seek it must expect the rest of us to speculate about their reasons.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.