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Besides flower shops, al fresco dining is another common example of street obstruction. There were 49 related complaints and six prosecutions in Yau Ma Tei alone last year.

Temple Street in Yau Ma Tei is well known for its dai pai dong restaurants, which are a traditional part of Hong Kong’s dining culture.

Hing Kee, an old-brand restaurant on Temple Street renowned for its claypot rice (煲仔飯), used to extend its seating area to almost half the street. But such scenes have disappeared recently. The dining tables in the street have been replaced by several rows of chairs for diners waiting outside for a vacant table inside the restaurant. When Varsity phoned the owner for more details, she said she had cleared away the outdoor seating because she did not want to risk going to jail, and was reluctant to say more.

The problem for these eateries is that they are not licensed for outdoor business. Mr Wong, who is in his 50s and also prefers not give his full name, is the owner of another popular restaurant with over 20 years history on Temple Street. He is cautious when using outdoor spaces. Only a few tables spring up in front of his restaurant after 9 p.m. when FEHD officers are off duty.

According to the Food Business Regulation, those running restaurants outside the confines of their premises can face up to a HK$ 10,000 fine and three months in jail. Wong has already received the maximum fine several times.

In fact, food premises can apply to the FEHD for outdoor seating permission but applications are then referred to at least six other government departments. The applicant has to get the consent of all the departments and Wong thinks this is extremely difficult to achieve.

He says he will probably not put tables outside if the fixed penalty system is introduced, because “profits won’t offset the fine”. He worries that a streamlined on-the-spot penalty system would mean enforcement officers could take action against a business several times a day.

Although nearby residents may find outdoor dining a nuisance, many diners enjoy the ambience of outdoor dining, especially in the winter when claypot rice is most popular. “They like dining outside when the weather is cool in winter. They can enjoy street scenery at the same time. It feels so good,” Wong says.

Customers who prefer sitting outdoors include visitors who seek out dai pai dongs to experience the unique setting. Briton Lorraine Simpson, who works for British Airways, visits Hong Kong once a month. During her short stays in Hong Kong, she always dines with her friends at dai pai dongs here. “This is what we hope for. This is what we want,” she says, “you mustn’t lose it.”

According to Starry Lee Wai-king, the chair of the Panel on Home Affairs in LegCo, the main aim of a fixed penalty system is to act as a deterrent to street obstruction rather than to eliminate streets with distinctive local features. The panel is responsible for overseeing the policies against SFEs. “The fixed penalty system is similar to that of parking offences,” she says.

Lee says places with distinct character and features such as Temple Street are worth developing as attractions, but only in suitable locations. Due to limited space in Hong Kong, she says is difficult to find suitable venues for such attractions without disturbing residents nearby. She explains there has to be a balance between development of local features and residents’ interests.

“Putting aside tourists, if you are an inhabitant of Flower Market Street or Temple Street, your feelings [on the matter] must be different from that of visitors from other districts,” she says.

Lee speculates that if and when the law is passed, the related departments will still tolerate the obstructing shops to a certain extent, as there is insufficient manpower to check every street in Hong Kong. However, it would provide a more convenient way for officers to prosecute.