Snap decision: The street photographers are airbrushed out of an iconic tourist spot in Hong Kong

Small instant photography service booths have long been part of the vibrant scene on the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, frequented by tourists – and sometimes locals – who want high-resolution snapshots of themselves against Hong Kong’s iconic skyline and Victoria Harbour.

Live photography stall seller Mango Tsoi takes a photo of a family on December 23, 2022, a week before his license to set up shop outside the Hong Kong Cultural Center expired. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Their business was hit hard over the past three years when tourism ground to a halt due to mandatory hotel quarantine, mandatory testing and other strict Covid-19 policies imposed on arrivals.

While the government removed most of the curbs and launched a HKD 2 billion “Hello Hong Kong” campaign to lure overseas visitors, some vendors are facing a new obstacle to reviving their business in the post-Covid era – running their photo booths without license.

Photographer Mango Tsoi, sitting on a folding plastic chair next to a camera on a tripod and a handcart with two printers stacked on top of each other, was on the lookout for staff from the government-run Hong Kong Cultural Center as he waited on customers a Friday night in early February.

The 34-year-old found his first group of patrons around 7:30 p.m., just over 20 minutes after pulling his cart from his nearby home to a relatively quiet corner of the promenade. A family of three visiting from mainland China bought two large pictures for HK$120 from Tsoi, quickly followed by another mainland Chinese family.

Live Photography Service Seller, Mango Tsoi. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

But as soon as a small crowd began to gather around Tsoi’s booth to inspect the 20 laminated sample photos on display, the photographer was approached by staff from the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

“Don’t put me in a difficult position,” one said as he instructed Tsoi to close his stall.

The seller responded by turning off a small lamp attached to his display board and quickly finished editing and printing his photos on the spot. He moved his equipment slightly in the direction of Victoria Dockside, another waterfront area privately owned and managed by New World Development.

Moments later, security personnel for the real estate giant also came over and warned Tsoi, telling him to know that he could not operate within the zone.

The live photography service Mango Tsoi used to operate when he still had an official license to set up shop in the Piazza of the Hong Kong Cultural Center expired. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The photographer said that while he was determined to find ways to keep his business going, meetings like those made it a “mystery” whether he could continue to make a living with the booth.

“Sometimes I can open the stall, sometimes I can’t,” he told HKFP on Thursday, about three months after losing his permit.

His current setup was much simpler and more portable compared to last December when he was still licensed to operate his stand outside the cultural center.

Tsoi and other accredited sellers had been assigned a standardized kiosk, which he decorated with tinsel for Christmas and a large bouquet of artificial roses as props for his customers. He also had a small pillow attached to a movable box to rest on.

But following the end of the scheme offering licenses to those operating outside the cultural center on December 30, Tsoi now risks being told to pack up and leave every time he tries to set up shop.

Mango Tsoi trims a photo at his booth on December 23, 2022, a week before his license to set up shop in the Piazza of the Hong Kong Cultural Center expired. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

According to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), the termination, which came more than two decades after the scheme was launched, was a result of the government’s decision to review the use of the piazza for “future mega-events with various types of installations along the promenade.”

Several large-scale art installations were recently exhibited, the department said, as part of its commitment to enliven the public space at Tsim Sha Tsui Harbor and support the administration’s pledge to promote art technology.

Asked if the end of the permit scheme meant anyone could provide live photography services in the area, the department said no one could set up a booth or conduct any type of commercial activity without a permit in LCSD venues.

“LCSD will continue to closely monitor the operation of unauthorized photo service booths and take appropriate action,” the department told HKFP in January.

An unauthorized photography booth had been identified and the vendor was asked to leave the piazza in accordance with the Civic Center Regulation, the department said in a separate email last month.

Live photography stall seller Mango Tsoi takes a photo of a family on December 23, 2022, a week before his license to set up shop in the Piazza of the Hong Kong Cultural Center expired. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Despite the risk of operating without a license, Tsoi, a Fujian native who came to Hong Kong at the age of 13, was reluctant to give up his business. He recalled the days of helping out at his father’s photo service booth as an assistant before obtaining his own permit through annual accreditation assessments.

They had to perform photo demonstrations and submit their work to an LCSD review panel for evaluation. A limited number of successful applicants – limited to eight for the 2022 contract – paid a registration fee of around HK$3,000. They were also subject to a list of rules, including operating on alternate dates and operating the booth for at least two consecutive hours.

“About 10 years ago, when tourists saw (my father) could take such beautiful pictures of them, it was like they stumbled upon a treasure and they wanted to spread the news around,” said Tsoi, describing how his father managed to beat the competition. from unlicensed suppliers offering lower prices.

Instant photo booths struggled to stay afloat long before Covid-19, when Avenue of Stars closed for more than three years for extensive renovations that began in October 2015.

Live photography stall vendor Mango Tsoi talks to his patrons on December 23, 2022, a week before his license to set up shop in the Piazza of the Hong Kong Cultural Center expired. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

It was followed by the extradition law unrest in 2019, with mass protests often breaking out at weekends. Visitors from mainland China, the majority of Tsoi’s clientele, “didn’t dare come to Hong Kong,” the photographer recalled.

Currently, live photography booths similar to the one run by Tsoi can be seen near other tourist attractions, including Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai and the Central Harbourfront Promenade, where Tsoi’s father’s booth is located.

Asked if he had considered moving his stall, Tsoi said he still vividly remembered how the view of Victoria Harbor took his breath away when he saw it for the first time. No other cityscape could replace the unique skyscrapers across the water, he said.

“I want tourists to be surprised like I was when they saw this view for the first time. They would be really happy if they had a beautiful picture. That’s why I insist that this business always will exist.”

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