Residents of Shek O and Big Wave Bay have praised the government for its swift action to reopen the only road to their villages after landslides triggered by last week’s record-breaking downpour cut them off.

Shek O
Shek O Village in Hong Kong, on September, 13, 2023. Photo: Hans Tse/HKFP.

The road to the southeastern coastal settlements was partially reopened last Saturday, less than two days after the downpour, although it was temporarily closed again on Thursday due to further heavy rains.

But the government is less popular among store owners and restaurant staff unsettled by an unrelated issue – frequent inspections in recent weeks by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD).

‘Prompt’ action to reopen road

A 60-year-old woman surnamed Lau said authorities had been responsive to the road collapse, adding that the situation had not been as dire as local media reported.

“The biggest problem was losing communications… but there was no shortage of fresh water and food,” Lau, a long-time Shek O resident, said in Cantonese. Local media had reported that parts of the village had suffered hampered internet and mobile phone service, a power blackout and a shortage of supplies last Friday.

red minibus shek o road rain rainstorm landslide climate crisis climate change
A red minibus makes its way past a collapsed section of Shek O Road, on September 14, 2023. Photo: GovHK.

The owner of a beachside store, who gave his surname as Yip, said panic did spread at first, especially among families with elderly people, but the government responded quickly to partially reopen Shek O Road. “We thought it [the repair work] would take weeks, no one expected the road to reopen on Saturday night,” Yip said in Cantonese.

Another store owner who refused to give his name also said he had not expected the road to reopen so soon.

“Full repairs could still take weeks to complete,” Yip said, adding that the government should consider building extra transport facilities in Shek O in case of a similar event in the future, such as a pier at the beach.

FEHD inspections upset businesses

But speaking to an HKFP reporter on Wednesday, store owners and restaurant staff expressed dismay at “more-than-frequent” and rigid inspections by FEHD’s hawker control officers in recent weeks, claiming the actions were disruptive to their everyday life.

FEHD officers have conducted five inspections in Shek O since August, an FEHD spokesperson told HKFP on Thursday.

Shek O Village
A store in Shek O Village on September 13, 2023. Photo: Hans Tse/HKFP.

Fong, a Shek O resident in his 70s and the owner of Fong Fong Store, said the rainstorm did not cause too much damage to his property. He raised the floor of his store after Super Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018 brought severe flooding to the village.

Fong said he has been more upset by what he called the constant and rigid inspections. Several store owners were equally irate.

One store owner, who gave her surname as Tsui, said she had decided to open at noon to avoid FEHD officers, who tended to inspect in the mornings. “[FEHD officers] would ask me to move my goods [into the store], but I was not obstructing anyone,” she said in Cantonese.

Yip, the beachside store owner and a second-generation resident, said it was common practice for store owners to display their goods on the side of the road to gain tourists’ attention. When FEHD officers inspected the area, store owners were required to keep the items strictly within their shops.

Shek O Village
A restaurant in Shek O village, on 12 September, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

For restaurants without a proper license, the inspections could result in legal action.

One person has been prosecuted for operating an unlicensed food business in recent inspections in Shek O, the FEHD spokeperson told HKFP.

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A woman, who refused to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the restaurent where she works had to go to court recently after an inspection, and the business was disrupted every time the officers arrived.

Cheung, 86, whose family has owned a restaurant in Shek O for decades, said they had struggled for years to get a licence.

Licensed restaurants like Shek O Thai and Cococabana were open on Wednesday and staff said they were unaffected by the inspections. Employees at most other restaurants declined to talk about the issue.

Shek O Village
A restaurant in Shek O village, on 12 September, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Yip said many restaurants in the village had been operated by local families for decades but it had been difficult for them to acquire licences.

He said the process involves the Lands Department, the Fire Services Department and the FEHD. Even then, “sometimes when a restaurant has met all regulatory requirements, they cannot get a licence because their land lease does not allow it.”

Under the Food Business Regulation, an operator of an unlicensed food premise could be fined up to HK$50,000 and jailed for up to six months.

Tensions with eateries

Recent enforcement actions against eateries in the city have stirred controversy and tension about whether such actions are reasonable.

In August, eateries in an industrial building in Kwun Tong were ordered by the Lands Department to close down. Critics said eateries in industrial buildings were catering to thousands of local workers and overly rigid enforcement did not serve the community.

Secretary for Development Bernadette Linn
Secretary for Development Bernadette Linn at a forum hosted by Heung Yee Kuk on 17 August, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

In response, Secretary for Development Bernadette Linn, who oversees the Lands Department, cited a breach of land lease conditions and said the department would operate in accordance with the law, Inmedia reported.

“The FEHD will continue to take stringent enforcement actions against unlicensed food premises to safeguard food safety and public health,” the spokesperson said.

Asked how he himself felt about the recent inspections, Yip said he did not blame the officers concerned. “They are doing their job… but have you ever heard of someone who had food poisoning after eating in Shek O? I certainly haven’t.”

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Hans Tse is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He was previously a researcher at several universities and wrote about local politics and media transformations. He holds an M.Phil in communication from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.