By Contributor | Post Magazine
The announcement in December that the Hong Kong government was going to allow food trucks to operate in “prime locations” made me ask, “What in the world are they thinking?” (My original words were not as polite.)
Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung said that having food trucks would “increase and diversify Hong Kong’s food choices,” and assured us that “they won’t compete with existing restaurants”.
Once again, Hong Kong is trying to imitate something that’s popular overseas rather than keeping its own heritage. There’s no need to have food trucks (other than Mister Softee) when we have (or had, before the government cracked down on them) our own version of mobile food vendors: street hawkers. Che zai mian (cart noodles) used to be sold from actual carts, rather than from storefronts. Gai dan jai, waffles spread with peanut butter or condensed milk, curry fish balls, dragon’s beard candy and chou doufu (stinky beancurd) all used to be available from street vendors, but now you have to buy them from shops. They’re part of what made Hong Kong interesting, instead of one big shopping mall.
Do they really think that 12 food trucks are going to entice tourists into coming here? If I were a food-obsessed traveller (oh wait, I am!) trying to decide between the food trucks in New York or the food trucks in Hong Kong, I know which city I’d pick (hint: it’s not the Big Lychee). Other cities are doing the food truck scene far better than the government plans for us, and if it’s just making a token effort to be trendy and have what other cities have (think of our tiny harbourfront ferris wheel), then it’s better not to do anything at all. Unless the food trucks offer fantastic food cooked up by top chefs – like the one earlier this year in Tokyo, by Michelin three-star Yoshihiro Narisawa (in which case it would be competing with existing restaurants) – what are they going to serve that can’t be provided by street hawkers?
The government estimates that the start-up cost for a food truck will be HK$600,000 – which is a substantial investment. Tourists are here today, gone tomorrow – is a food truck vendor really going to be able to make a living from such erratic business? To survive, they’ll have to be good enough to draw daily custom – and that means from those of us who live here. They plan for the trucks to be in areas such as the Central harbourfront (which keeps changing, because they keep filling in the harbour [but that’s another rant entirely]), Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park. With the latter two, that means only the people who are out there in the first place, visiting the theme parks, will be potential customers; I can’t imagine anyone would make a trip to Disneyland just to eat from a truck.
“But food trucks are cleaner!” I know someone will argue. “They have refrigeration and water!” But just as the government will, I’m sure, inspect and license food trucks, they could just as easily inspect and license street hawkers, to make sure they’re up to standard.
If they actually go through with this, I can guess the outcome: the licences will be sold to established businesses, so the trucks will be mobile Starbucks, Café de Coral, McDonald’s and others of that ilk. While these places serve their purpose (and yes, I go to them on occasion), their fare will not fit the “spirit” of food trucking, which is to serve up something interesting, delicious and unique. And the trucks are certainly not going to help ordinary Hong Kong people who have no other way to make a living than by selling their wares from a cart.