Word on the Street

Text Rachel Chia Pho­tos Scott Wood­ward

Asian Geographic - - Heritage -


Wan­lop Suwandee, chief ad­viser to Bangkok’s gover­nor, an­nounced a blan­ket ban on street hawk­ers in the Thai cap­i­tal this April, the back­lash was im­me­di­ate. News out­lets slammed the ad­min­is­tra­tion for culling a culi­nary com­mu­nity that is rated as among the finest street food des­ti­na­tions in the world; pic­tures de­pict­ing eerily empty hawker haunts of Siam Square, Pratu­nam and Saphan Lek mar­ket – where hawk­ers had been run out by the mil­i­tary – made the rounds on­line, and lovers of Thai street food flooded so­cial me­dia in dis­may.

But within a week, the nar­ra­tive changed. On April 21, Wan­lop told CNN that he had been mis­quoted. The Tourism Author­ity of Thai­land (TAT) is­sued a press re­lease as­sur­ing tourists that the city would con­tinue to of­fer its famed street fare, al­beit with ad­di­tional hy­giene mea­sures.

“While there are mea­sures in place to con­trol food ven­dors and en­force cur­rent reg­u­la­tions, there is no out­right ban on the sale of street food,” the re­lease stated. It also said that “in Bangkok’s busiest ar­eas, ven­dors have been re­quired to move to des­ig­nated zones and nearby mar­kets to op­er­ate” to en­sure the safety of pedes­tri­ans and driv­ers. Con­ges­tion and hy­giene are hardly new con­cerns sur­round­ing street food hawk­ing, and Thai­land is but the lat­est in a string of Asian coun­tries whose gov­ern­ments have set their sights on reg­u­lat­ing this in­for­mal – and some­times il­le­gal – sec­tor. Coun­tries like In­dia, In­done­sia and Cam­bo­dia have em­ployed a com­bi­na­tion of mea­sures to man­age hawker pop­u­la­tions, in­clud­ing crack­downs, li­cenc­ing, and re­lo­ca­tion to des­ig­nated ar­eas. This is of­ten driven by con­cerns about food safety, poor waste dis­posal, and clogged streets, ac­cord­ing to the Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the United Na­tions (FAO).

“Street foods of­ten es­cape for­mal in­spec­tion and con­trol. They can there­fore both be the source of food safety prob­lems and con­trib­ute to the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of environmental hy­giene,” says Srid­har Dharma­puri, a se­nior food safety and nu­tri­tion of­fi­cer from the FAO’S re­gional of­fice in Bangkok. “This is ac­cen­tu­ated by is­sues such as the lack of a safe wa­ter sup­ply, which is a key source of con­tam­i­na­tion of uten­sils, plates and food it­self. The lack of de­fined pub­lic spa­ces for ven­dors to func­tion also leads them to un­hy­gienic and in­ap­pro­pri­ate spots near drains or garbage dumps.”

He said that the FAO is work­ing with city cor­po­ra­tions to iden­tify pub­lic spa­ces that can be de­vel­oped as street food courts to re­duce con­ges­tion on roads and pave­ments, and with ven­dors and gov­ern­ments to im­ple­ment a food and environmental hy­giene code.

But ten­sions re­main. Though well-in­ten­tioned, poli­cies im­pact­ing street hawk­ers are of­ten met with pub­lic re­sis­tance. In one ex­treme case, ri­ots broke out in Hong Kong’s Mongkok district last Jan­uary dur­ing a crack­down on un­li­cenced hawk­ers dur­ing Chi­nese New Year. The bloody al­ter­ca­tion be­tween po­lice and protesters – dubbed the “Fish­ball Rev­o­lu­tion”, after the pop­u­lar street snack – saw over 90 in­jured and 61 ar­rested. “In many cases, au­thor­i­ties have forcibly evicted street ven­dors in the name of ur­ban or­der and clean­li­ness. But street ven­dors of­ten re­sist such evic­tions and de­mand space for their busi­nesses,” says Dr De­den Ruk­mana, who served as an ur­ban plan­ner in In­done­sia for eight years.

Dr Ruk­mana, cur­rently the co­or­di­na­tor for the Ur­ban Stud­ies and Plan­ning pro­gramme at Sa­van­nah State Uni­ver­sity in the US, says that gov­ern­ments should pass laws, such as In­done­sia’s Spa­tial Plan­ning Act, to re­serve space for hawk­ers in ur­ban plans.

As Asian na­tions ag­gres­sively pur­sue de­vel­op­ment, hawk­ers are tan­gled up in a coun­try’s at­tempts to clean up its im­age. Poli­cies of coun­tries as­pir­ing to reg­u­late street hawk­ers are of­ten compared to Sin­ga­pore’s, which suc­cess­fully re­lo­cated itin­er­ant street hawk­ers to per­ma­nent ar­eas, known as hawker cen­tres, in the 1970s. “Back then, peo­ple hawked their fam­ily’s her­itage recipes on the street to make a liv­ing,” says KF See­toh,

Like Thai­land, tourism boards across Asia are wis­ing up to the pos­si­bil­ity of us­ing street food to po­si­tion the coun­try as a culi­nary des­ti­na­tion. “We want to at­tract vis­i­tors to come to Myan­mar to en­joy our culi­nary de­lights,” says May Myat Mon Win, chair­per­son of Myan­mar Tourism Mar­ket­ing. “From the sta­ple Burmese noo­dle soups called mo­hinga to a va­ri­ety of eth­nic spe­cial­ties, chances are the best dishes you could imag­ine can be found on the streets.”

Other coun­tries, like Malaysia, are leav­ing the street food sec­tor com­pletely in­tact. Hawker dishes are one of Malaysia’s main tourist at­trac­tions, and the govern­ment does not plan to change how street hawk­ers op­er­ate, says a spokesper­son from the Malaysia Tourism Pro­mo­tion Board.

Danny Tan, man­ager of tourism pro­mo­tions for Pe­nang Global Tourism, adds: “Chang­ing the way street food is sold is like forc­ing an in­tan­gi­ble her­itage to adapt to new for­mu­la­tion, which even­tu­ally will de­stroy the beauty of its ori­gin.” Food ex­perts are in con­sen­sus that gov­ern­ments are un­likely to suc­ceed in erad­i­cat­ing street hawk­ers due to their es­sen­tial role in so­ci­ety.

“In one sense, street hawk­ers sub­sidise cap­i­tal­ism and in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion by pro­vid­ing cheap food, al­low­ing poorer peo­ple to sus­tain them­selves on low wages,” says Dr Kyoko Kusak­abe, a re­searcher on hawk­ers in Bangkok and Ph­nom Penh. “Ban­ning street food is not only im­pos­si­ble, but also coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, given the mul­ti­ple func­tion that street vend­ing pro­vides.” Dr Kusak­abe adds that hawk­ers who have been evicted off the streets would have dif­fi­culty find­ing al­ter­na­tive ways to sur­vive, due to their limited skills and qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

The hawker’s hum­ble ori­gins are com­mon across Asia, as women, mi­grant workers from ru­ral ar­eas and those un­em­ployed of­ten sell food to earn in­come. Any­one with some cap­i­tal can start a stall, as they only need ba­sic fa­cil­i­ties and food prepa­ra­tion skills, says Florenti­nus Gre­go­rius Wi­narno, “the fa­ther of In­done­sian food science and tech­nol­ogy”. Wi­narno adds: “The street food industry is an im­por­tant first job-provider for many peo­ple, and pre­vents vul­ner­a­ble so­cial groups from slip­ping into poverty. The sig­nif­i­cance of this in Asian so­ci­ety has been ig­nored for too long by pol­i­tics.”

While some coun­tries have launched at­tempts to clear hawk­ers off the streets, coun­tries like Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia – who have made hawker cen­tres a na­tional in­sti­tu­tion – are des­per­ately try­ing to save their street food her­itage. Kuala Lumpur and Pe­nang have passed laws that only al­low lo­cals to cook hawker food, to pre­serve its au­then­tic­ity. Kuala Lumpur has also been en­cour­ag­ing street hawk­ers to re­lo­cate to food trucks. In Sin­ga­pore, the govern­ment launched pro­grammes pair­ing new hawk­ers with ex­pe­ri­enced ones, of­fer­ing a place to test their recipes be­fore start­ing a stall.

Ex­ist­ing trends in the busi­ness in­clude a move to cre­ate fu­sion dishes, and in­tro­duc­ing higher qual­ity in­gre­di­ents. These are mostly ini­ti­ated by young hawk­ers like Le­nard Tan, 19, who will take over his mother’s por­ridge stall, Ah Yee Con­gee. “I’d like to in­clude more menu items that ap­peal to younger peo­ple,” says Tan.

Should hawker cen­tres die out, they might be re­placed with food halls that charge higher prices and raise the pro­file of the chefs, pre­dicts El­iz­a­beth Ben­nett, who re­searched Sin­ga­pore’s hawker cen­tres from a his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural per­spec­tive un­der a Ful­bright grant.

Makan­su­tra’s KF See­toh thinks that food parks could be the fu­ture, where peo­ple can ex­pe­ri­ence the charm of eat­ing on the street in a hy­gienic man­ner. A mush­room­ing num­ber of street food events world­wide also in­di­cate a grow­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the her­itage value of such food cul­ture.

“Hawker food is her­itage food; it is a cel­e­bra­tion of who you are in the form of food,” says See­toh. “Her­itage hawk­ers are now icons – a face, place, and taste that links the food to the land.” ag

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