A woman holding a doll dances with a man holding a stuffed animal on a busy street.
People dance along to a karaoke performance on Sai Yeung Choi Street. Vivek Prakash/AFP/Getty Images

The raucous pedestrian zone in Mong Kok will reopen to vehicles, following hundreds of noise complaints.

HONG KONG—At the heart of Mong Kok, one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the world, is a 1,500-foot-long street that’s a bustling pedestrian zone on weekend nights. Spanning four city blocks, this strip of public space has long attracted buskers, photographers, dancers, acrobats, and people out for an entertaining stroll.

But as of August 4, the pedestrian zone on Sai Yeung Choi Street South—first designated as such in 2000—will be no more. The reason: The street had gotten so loud and rowdy that police received more than 1,200 noise complaints about it last year.

Spectators take photos of a singer on Sai Yeung Choi Street in May. (Vivek Prakash/AFP/Getty Images)

The street had been closed to all vehicular traffic from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and from noon to 10 p.m. on Sundays and public holidays. (Before 2014, it was closed evenings from Monday through Saturday and on public holidays, but that was scaled back to weekends and public holidays only.) Because of the noise complaints, the district council voted in May to end the pedestrian zone.

The noise complaints are just the latest controversy to play out on this busy street, following scuffles between pro-China dance groups and anti-China “localist” protestors in 2015, and violent clashes between riot police and protestors in 2016.

The shuttering of the pedestrian zone could mean a step backwards for the walkability of Hong Kong.

Although it is compact, dense, and transit-oriented, with public transportation accounting for some 90 percent of daily passenger trips, Hong Kong remains car-focused in its design, and only in recent years has the government begun to push for a more pedestrian-friendly approach to urban planning.

“Over the past few decades, the city planning and transport planning has prioritized the convenience of cars, focusing on maintaining traffic flow and motor speed,” said Simon Ng, a consultant who focuses on transportation and is the author of Global Cities: Urban Environments in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and China.

“The needs of cars have long been emphasized and prioritized” at the expense of pedestrians, he said.

For now, the car rules on Hong Kong’s streets. The number of vehicles on the road has grown year on year, increasing by 35 percent between 2006 and 2016—“an alarming rate,” as the government put it in a report on worsening traffic congestion.

Andy Yu, a district councilor who abstained from voting on the motion, is worried that the end of the Mong Kok pedestrian zone may set a precedent for closing down others around the city.

“Hong Kong has more than 10 pedestrian zones,” he said. “What if district councils just cancelled pedestrian zones everywhere?”

A man crosses Pedder Street in the financial district of Hong Kong. The number of vehicles on Hong Kong’s roads increased 35 percent between 2006 and 2016. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Ng worries that city residents may now associate pedestrian zones with noise, and as a result, turn against calls for walkability. The key, he said, is better operation and management of pedestrian zones.

On a recent Sunday evening, the Mong Kok zone was an intense hodgepodge of sounds emanating from amplifiers. The Beatles’ “Let It Be” mixed in the air with Cantonese classics and Top 100 hits. Some performers drew crowds of up to 100 people; others mostly sang to themselves.

Po-gang Yu, 70, balanced a large ceramic pot on his head as Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” played from his amplifier. Then he put the pot down, donned a black fedora, and began to do the moonwalk.   

“It’s a pity” that the government is killing off the street, said Yu, who has performed there for six years. Instead of shutting down the pedestrian zone and driving out performers like him, he wants to see a licensing system like the one used in Taipei.

Other performers were less sentimental about the closure, and actually welcomed the imminent death of their performance venue.

“I agree with killing the street,” said David Lee, 60, who sings there about twice a month with a few friends. His singing is often drowned by large amplifiers placed up and down the street. “It’s just too loud. Our amplifier is small,” he said, adding that he will sing elsewhere when the street reopens to traffic.

Steps away, Ivan So, 13, began a juggling act as music blared from his amplifier. “I think this street should be killed. To me as a performer, it really is too loud,” said So, who has been performing there for six months.

Yu, the district councilor, would rather see better noise regulation than a total closure of the zone. In June, he set up a noise control simulation, asking performers in two areas of the zone to stay below 85 decibels and to refrain from using amplifiers and generators. The mock regulations seemed to work: According to Yu, noise in the test areas stayed below 85 decibels, compared with up to 100 decibels elsewhere on the street.

“If the Hong Kong government prioritizes street culture and buskers, and the value of their existence,” then it should invest the necessary resources to regulate the area and keep the pedestrian zone alive, he said. “If we could do it within a week, then the government, with all its resources, definitely can.”

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