As a clash between protesters and police played out on Chinese New Year, street-food vendors were caught in the middle.

When the Internet hashtagged the clash between protesters and police in Hong Kong on Chinese New Year the #FishballRevolution, it made clear that the chaos was about more than just the popular street food.

“[This] so-called “Fish Ball Revolution” really isn’t about fishballs at all,” Jason Y. Ng, a Hong-Kong based activist, writes in the Hong Kong Free Press. “[It] is about citizens fed up with the daily abuse by an unelected and unaccountable government led by an unelected and unaccountable chief executive.”

Indeed, the uncommonly violent protest that led to dozens of injuries and more than 60 arrests was in large part the result of brewing tensions between the public and the government over the future of the city’s political independence from Beijing. It began after police attempted to crack down on unlicensed street vendors selling local delicacies in the busy Mong Kok area, but it wasn't the vendors themselves clashing with the police. Rather, many protesters were young supporters of the so-called “localist” movement, who favor autonomy and who don’t shy from confrontation with the police, according to the BBC. As the violence played out, food hawkers remained very much in the background.

Yet fishballs became a symbol of last week’s unrest, and Hong Kong’s traditional but dying culture of street hawking became a catalyst. As Ng writes, “The significance of the fishball hawkers lies in their very insignificance.”

Part of a history that stretches back for decades, street vendors typically keep their stalls open during New Year’s festivities as formal shops close for the holiday. It’s been a way for vendors to make a extra money to supplement their meager earnings. Crackdowns aren’t new either, as the South China Morning Post reports that the government has made similar shut-down attempts in other parts of the city. But this year, things turned violent after police took more aggressive actions, reports CNN:

Traditionally, authorities have turned a blind eye to unlicensed food stalls during the festive period, but authorities took a stronger line against them this year, fencing off areas which had previously been used by the hawkers.

Street vendors have been at the center of protests before, including some that have turned out to be revolutionary. In 2013, thousands of street vendors in Delhi led a protest against “police terror” after a crackdown on hawkers in Mumbai led to the death of a fruit vendor named Madan Jaiswal. And when Mohamed Bouazizi, an unlicensed vegetable seller in Tunisia who was constantly harassed by the local police, set himself ablaze in December 2010, his actions sparked a series of mass demonstrations known as the Jasmine Revolution. The protests eventually ousted then President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, ending his 23-year dictatorship, and set the Arab Spring in motion. “Never underestimate what the little guy can do,” Ng writes, in reference to Bouazizi’s death.

For protesters around the world, street hawkers represent frustration over growing income inequality. Jaiswal was earning less than $50 a week from his business, and Bouazizi barely made $10 a day. In Hong Kong, many hawkers come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Some have little to no education and others are unable to afford the city’s skyrocketing rents.

Tunisian protesters demonstrate beneath a poster of Mohamed Bouazizi near the prime minister's office in Tunis in 2011. (AP Photo/Salah Habibi)

Hong Kong’s street-hawking culture began after World War II, which shattered the city’s economy. An estimated 70,000 people turned to hawking to climb out of poverty in 1946, taking advantage of the fact that they could earn money without having to rent a shop or pay licensing fees, according to SMCP. When the British government implemented a licensing system to regulate the industry, the numbers came down to roughly 40,000 legal hawkers by the early 1970s. An estimated 6,000 more street vendors remained unlicensed. They could be found along popular roads and tucked between high-rises, with cooks preparing for the lunch rush.

Before the government started clamping down on the industry with food-safety concerns, the abundance of hawkers was a vibrant and iconic part of Hong Kong. Then, the city’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department began phasing out the culture. The government stopped handing out new licenses in 1973, and imposed restrictions on how hawkers could pass on their existing licenses. Starting in the 1980s, the government even began buying back licenses. Today, there are fewer than 30 legal street vendors, many of whom are close to retirement age. Meanwhile, unlicensed street hawkers continue to risk government persecution as they attempt to find loopholes to work. Some have turned to the licensing black market; others sublease space from licensed vendors, reports SMCP.

Supporters of street hawking criticize the government for failing to address the income gap in the city, where 960,000 live below the poverty line. Street vending, with its low operating costs, is seen by activists as one solution to the problem. But supporters of the localist movement accuse the government of catering to property developers in its redevelopment plans, favoring gentrification over preserving a longstanding tradition. It’s no surprise that protesters made the street trade the pretext for last week’s clash.

So while the #FishballRevolution is about much more than just food, the history behind the humble yet iconic delicacy has strong ties to the Hong Kong culture, and makes it a fitting symbol.

“It is the quintessential Hong Kong street food and—culturally—it represents the Hong Kong working class like no other institutions can,” restauranteur Alan Yau told the Guardian. “Street food and the fishball represent the values of entrepreneurship. Of capitalism. Of liberal democracy. Anthropologically, they mean more than a $5 skewer with curry satay sauce.”

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