Fighting flowers: Hong Kong's rowdy Chinese New Year flower market
You wouldn't think anyone would get into a fight over flowers. But at the Mongkok Flower Market tempers often boil over. In the lead-up to Chinese New Year thousands of people cram into the neighbourhood every day in a rush to buy orchids and orange trees before New Year's Day, which this year happens to coincide with Valentine's Day, and passions can flare up. Everything comes to a head on New Year's Eve, when the streets are thronged with people until the early morning. It's the Flower Market at its liveliest, most intense and most fragrant.
Last week, members of the Cheung family stood shouting at hawker control officers who had just issued them a fine for blocking the sidewalk with their flowers. The Cheungs have run a stall in the lane running between Sai Yee Street and Fa Yuen Street for more than 30 years. But every New Year they are fined for obstructing the sidewalk.
"We've followed them to the other flower shops and they don't do anything to them," says Kelly Cheung, 23, who has helped out at the stall since she was six years old. "Each ticket costs thousands of dollars and we've already been fined six times in the past week. It's not fair."
Kelly's father, Cheung Yuk-hing, 55, is more diplomatic. "We just want Chinese New Year to be festive," he says softly, smiling. "We're very neat about putting our plants in the street. We were the first to put plants there. Now everyone does it. I just want the officers to understand."
About a dozen hawker control officers prowl the neighborhood in the days leading up to Chinese New Year. Over the course of an hour, they tell many shopowners and hawkers to move their flowers, though they don't issue many fines.
"I'm not authorized to talk to reporters," says one officer who would not give his name. But he continued talking: "Our duty is to control all of the boxes to make sure they don't obstruct the pedestrians. That's all."
While any fresh flowers and fruits are appropriate for New Year celebrations, a few varieties are especially popular and they can be seen in abundance at the Flower Market. These include the somewhat titillatingly named Nipple Fruit. Its Chinese name is "five generation fruit," and it's considered particularly auspicious for occasions when the entire family gathers.
Kumquats and oranges are also popular. Before New Year, the streets around the Flower Market become orange-studded mazes.
Orchids have recently become a New Year favourite. Mountain City Plants, on Sai Yee Street, specializes in orchids.
"People are loose with their money during New Year," says one of the shop's employees, Mrs Cheung. "They like orchids because they're elegant, they're high class and they last for months. It's a tough plant."
While a single orchid would have cost hundreds of dollars just a few years ago, says Cheung, they've dropped in price. "They're more common now."
The Flower Market has been around for well over a century. Before the New Territories were handed over to the British in 1898, farmers from Sham Shui Po would take their flowers across the border at Boundary Street and sell them around where the present-day market is.
Although rising rents have threatened the market's survival in recent years, it is resilient, expanding beyond its original base on Flower Market Road into many of the neighboring streets. There are now plans to renovate some of the streets around the market and to restore a row of 1930s-era shop houses on Prince Edward Road.
New Year is a good chance for flower merchants to show off their best wares. The Cheungs grow all of their plants and flowers at a nursery in the New Territories. It's an exercise in patience: it can take up to five years for an orange tree to bear fruit.
The Cheungs' friend, Li Wah-chueng, brings in some of the flowers he has grown himself. He is particularly proud of a rare species of peony that is notoriously difficult to grow in Hong Kong.
"I only have my [apartment] balcony to grow on but I still love it," says the softly spoken 55-year-old. "I especially enjoy peonies because I can control exactly how they grow. This kind should have seven leaves and if the weather is just right, the flowers will be really big."
Normally, the Flower Market is deserted at night, and most shops close a little after 7pm. But it's open around the clock in the days leading up to the New Year. The Cheungs won't close their stall until then. "My dad and uncle are here all night," says Kelly. "After New Year they'll rest."
Mongkok flower market "faa hui"
Flower Market Road between Sai Yee Street and Yuen Po Street.