Small instant photography service stalls have long been part of the vibrant scene at Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, frequented by tourists – and sometimes locals – who want high-resolution snapshots of themselves against Hong Kong’s iconic skyline and Victoria Harbour.

Live photography stall vendor Mango Tsoi takes photo of a family on December 23, 2022, a week before his license to set up shop outside the Hong Kong Cultural Centre expired. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Their business was hit hard over the past three years as tourism ground to a halt due to compulsory hotel quarantine, mandatory testing and other strict Covid-19 policies imposed on arrivals.

While the government axed most curbs and launched a HK$2 billion “Hello Hong Kong” campaign to lure overseas visitors, some vendors are facing a new hurdle to reviving their business in the post-Covid era – running their photography booths without a licence.

Sitting on a plastic foldable chair next to a camera on a tripod and a hand trolley with two printers stacked on top of each other, photographer Mango Tsoi was on the lookout for staff from the government-managed Hong Kong Cultural Centre while he waited for customers on a Friday night in early February.

The 34-year-old found his first batch of patrons at around 7.30 p.m., a little over 20 minutes after hauling his cart from his nearby home to a relatively quiet corner of the promenade. A family of three visiting from mainland China bought two large photos for HK$120 from Tsoi, quickly followed by another mainland Chinese family.

Live photography service stall vendor Mango Tsoi. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

But as soon as a small crowd began to gather around Tsoi’s booth to inspect the 20-odd laminated sample photos on display, the photographer was approached by staff from the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

“Don’t put me in a difficult position please,” one said as he instructed Tsoi to close his stall.

The vendor responded by switching off a small lamp attached to his display board and hurriedly finished editing and printing his photos on the spot. He moved his equipment slightly toward the direction of Victoria Dockside, another harbourfront space which is privately owned and managed by New World Development.

Moments later, security personnel for the property giant also came over and cautioned Tsoi, saying he should know he could not operate within the zone.

The live photography service kiosk Mango Tsoi used to operate when he still had an official license to set up shop at the Piazza of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre expired. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The photographer said although he was determined to find ways to keep his business running, encounters like those made it a “mystery” as to whether he could continue to make a living with the booth.

“Sometimes I can open the stall, sometimes I cannot,” he told HKFP on Thursday, around three months after losing his permit.

His current setup was a lot simpler and more portable compared to December last year, when he was still licensed to operate his booth outside the cultural centre.

Tsoi and other accredited vendors had been assigned a standardised kiosk, which he jazzed up with tinsel for Christmas and a large artificial rose bouquet as props for his clients. He also had a small cushion attached to a movable box to rest on.

But following the termination of the scheme offering licenses to those who operated outside the cultural centre on December 30, Tsoi now risks being told to pack up and go every time he tries to set up shop.

Mango Tsoi trims a photo at his booth on December 23, 2022, a week before his license to set up shop at the Piazza of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre expired. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

According to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), the termination, which came more than two decades after the scheme was launched, was a result of the government’s decision to review the use of the piazza for “future mega events with different types of installations along the promenade.”

Several large-scale art installations were recently put on display, the department said, as part of its commitment to bring vibrancy to the public space of the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront and support the administration’s pledge to promote arts tech.

Asked if the cessation of the permit scheme meant anyone could provide live photography service in the area, the department said no-one could erect a booth or carry out any form of trading activities without permission in LCSD venues.

“The LCSD will continue to monitor closely the operation of unauthorised photography service stalls and take appropriate actions,” the department told HKFP in January.

One unauthorised photography stall had been identified and the vendor directed to leave the piazza in accordance with the Civic Centres Regulation, the department said in a separate email last month.

Live photography stall vendor Mango Tsoi takes photo of a family on December 23, 2022, a week before his license to set up shop at the Piazza of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre expired. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Despite the risk of operating without a licence, Tsoi, a Fujian native who came to Hong Kong at the age of 13, was reluctant to give up on his business. He reminisced about the days when he helped out at his father’s photo service booth as an assistant, before obtaining his own permit through annual accreditation assessments.

They were required to conduct photo demonstrations and submit their work to an LCSD vetting panel for evaluation. A limited number of successful applicants – capped at eight for the 2022 contract – paid a registration fee of around HK$3,000. They were also subject to a list of regulations, including operating on alternate dates and running the booth for at least two consecutive hours.

“Around 10 years ago, when tourists saw [my dad] could take such beautiful photos of them, it was like they stumbled upon a treasure and they would spread the news around,” Tsoi said as he described how his father managed to beat competition from unlicensed vendors offering lower prices.

Instant photo booths were struggling to stay afloat long before Covid-19, when the Avenue of Stars closed for more than three years for extensive renovations that began in October 2015.

Live photography stall vendor Mango Tsoi talks to his patrons on December 23, 2022, a week before his license to set up shop at the Piazza of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre expired. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

That was followed by the 2019 extradition bill unrest which saw mass protests often erupt on the weekends. Visitors from mainland China, the majority of Tsoi’s clientele, “did not dare to come to Hong Kong,” the photographer recalled.

At present, live photography stalls similar to the one run by Tsoi can be spotted near other tourist attractions, including Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai and the Central Harbourfront Promenade, where Tsoi’s father’s booth is located.

Asked if he had considered relocating his stall, Tsoi said he still vividly remembered how the view of Victoria Harbour took his breath away when he saw it for the first time. No other cityscape could replace the one-of-a-kind skyscrapers across the water, he said.

“I want tourists to be taken aback like I did when they look at this view for the first time. They would be really happy if they had a beautiful photo. This is why I insist that this business will always be around.”

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.