Cheung Tak Wing is pretty much the last of his line, in his family’s newspaper hawking business. For 30 years, “Wing Goh” — meaning “Brother Wing” — has been manning the newsstand at the corner of Granville Road, in one of Hong Kong’s most popular tourist districts, Tsim Sha Tsui.
“I was 8 or 9 years old when I started delivering newspapers each morning before classes,” Wing Goh told VICE World News, about his childhood in the 60s.
“I used to deliver the South China Morning Post to the British army barracks in East Tsim Sha Tsui. The soldiers let us in — they wanted newspapers.”
Wing Goh turned 64 this year. For all his life, and his brother’s, sister’s and their spouses’, the Cheungs’ livelihood depended on the rise and fall of Hong Kong’s newspaper business. He has seen triad members show off a knife to make sure they got the first copies of a newspaper. He’s seen papers sold as fast as they could be reprinted, on June 4, 1989 — the day of the Tiananmen Massacre, when the Beijing government cracked down on protesters with tanks.
But today, people in Hong Kong turn to news displayed on their phones. Under COVID-19 pandemic border lockdowns, the streets have become so quiet that Wing Goh doesn’t even bother opening his stand every day. Although there was that one day recently that was an anomaly, which reminded Wing Goh of the better days: when Hongkongers lined up at 2 a.m. to grab Apple Daily newspapers off of newsstands, hours after police raided its newsroom, and arrested its billionaire founder and vocal government critic, Jimmy Lai.
A potbellied uncle with thick, grey hair and droopy eyes behind spectacles, Wing Goh’s fingertips have turned black from touching printed ink on the horse racing papers layered in front of him. Even the top of his surgical mask displayed stains, as he kept pulling it up over his nose. This morning, it seemed that the papers offering horserace betting tips, and bottles of water, were the only things sold.
A family heirloom
Wing Goh’s parents started hawking papers before he was born. “[The government] saw that my father often sat in front of the barracks selling newspapers on top of a box, which was illegal,” he said. “So they handed him a license for a dollar ($0.13) a year.”
At the start of the 20th century, Hong Kong’s newspaper hawkers operated informally around the city. In the 1950s, the British colonial government started issuing newspaper hawker licenses to recovered leprosy and tuberculosis patients, and to those who were old, disabled, or in extreme poverty, as a way to help them earn a modest living.
Licensed stalls were restricted in size, and were only allowed to sell printed media. Over the years, some of the rules changed, and newsstands are now allowed to sell 12 specific types of items, including bottled water, cigarettes, lighters, toys, and pens. Preferring to keep streets tidy with modern shop fronts and free of lowly hawkers, the government limits their numbers by forbidding licenses to be leased or sold. A license can only be inherited from a deceased, direct family member, once in its lifetime. The government stopped issuing new licenses around 1993, according to Chong Yuk Sik, a sociologist who studied the subject extensively. In 2016, an official announced that the authorities had no plan to issue licenses in the future.
During the golden age of Hong Kong’s newspaper industry, there were up to 2,500 newspaper hawkers around the city. But as older hawkers passed away with no children willing to take up family businesses, the numbers dropped to 356 this year.
Wing Goh joined his parents at the stand at 16. His father passed his license to his younger brother, who closed shop a few years ago. His older sister married the son of another license holder, and continued to operate her newsstand in a nearby area.
Without his own license, Wing Goh partnered up with a family friend who has one, and operates a stand leaning against the side of a bank.
Banned books boom
Selling newspapers used to be good business. Wing Goh and his wife worked in shifts for 24 hours a day, and never closed.
“You could make money selling papers in the 90s, up until the 2000s.” When the government started letting in mainland Chinese tourists, Wing Goh’s stand boomed in business selling political books banned in China.
“We made HK$10,000 ($1,290) in revenue a day just selling those books,” he said. Banned books are a genre of titles and magazines that divulge juicy stories about factional struggles and private lives of officials in the highest ranks of the Communist Party.
“Mainland tourists used to come asking for these books. We would get orders to deliver boxes of them to nearby hotels,” he said. “You know, ones who drive over with a China-Hong Kong license.” Wing Goh’s clients were rich mainlanders — these dual car licenses cost hundreds of thousands to obtain.
But in 2016, five Hong Kong publishers of banned books went missing, only to reappear in mainland custody, charged with distributing banned titles in the country. Most banned books publishers stopped printing, so Wing Goh lost his most profitable merchandise. “We will no longer have these, because of the national security law,” he said. In July, the Chinese government enacted in Hong Kong a law that bans acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, with sentences ranging up to life in prison.
“These books are not yet banned, but soon. I don’t want trouble,” he said, although his stand still displayed a magazine showing protesters standing in a cloud of tear gas on its cover, and another with “Liberate Hong Kong” in large print, a pro-democracy protest slogan.
“We used to make 3 cents out of a paper sold for a dime. Money used to be worth more,” he recalled. “We had a million dollars ($129,000) in savings by 2003.” When the SARS epidemic hit, real estate prices in Asia’s most expensive city plunged, so Wing Goh and his wife placed the biggest wager of their lives.
“We bought an apartment worth 3 million ($389,000), with 900,000 ($116,000) in down payment. A few years later, it was worth 6 million ($774,000). We sold it and bought three smaller flats in an older building,” he said. “Now two of them are rented out and we live in the third one.”
Wing Goh is resigned to the fact that newspaper hawkers will soon disappear due to “natural selection.” With only a dozen newspapers sold a day, selling cigarettes, bottled water, and soft drinks (which is illegal) would bring in about HK$1,000 ($129) in daily profits.
“Even I read news only from my phone. Maybe I would get a copy of the Oriental Daily when there’s a horse race,” he confessed, saying that he spends hours every day watching Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, and YouTube.
“Even if the government issues new licenses now, nobody would want them.”
“We have 5G or 6G now. By the time we have 7G or 8G, there will be no more newspaper hawkers in Hong Kong.”