Parochialism has no place in a global context


There’s a rather lively discussion on Facebook. It started when I was linked to Robyn Eckhart’s Eating Asia blog entry: “George Town: The State of the (Our) Stomach(s)” by alert reader, Umami.

There are a few write-ups and blog entries in the discussion, so I’ll include them here:

Anyway, I’ve read Ms. Eckhart’s blog entries and the article and after reading them, I’ve summarized these main points:

  1. Ms Eckhart objects to Seetoh’s proposal of the Singaporean Street Food Evolution as a model for the world to follow.
  2. There is too much celebrity and maleness in the Council.
  3. If you’re contemplating a street food-fueled tour of southeast Asia you’d be crazy to skip Penang. And oh yes,
  4. Ms. Eckhart did not attend the World Street Food Congress 2013 because of prior plans and she writes for publications that do not accept free food or lodgings.

Dramatics aside, I agree with Ms. Eckhart’s points, however I feel that they do not tell the whole story.

Beef brisket and tendon Laksa

Let’s start with the easy pieces first and build our way up.

There’s too much celebrity and maleness in the Council

There’s a certain social stigma with hawkers, especially in Asia (I’ll use “Hawkers” instead of “Street Food Vendors” for obvious reasons), this is one of the reasons the trade is dying out because it’s a hard and dirty job that the younger, better educated generation want no part of. And for those in culinary school, it is hard to justify high tuition fees to be a hawker (at least in Asia).

For example, even Penang’s famous Soon Chuan Choo (of the red-hatted Char Kway Teow) once retorted to Anthony Bourdain and Ooi Geok Ling that she wouldn’t be a hawker if she could speak English.

One of the ways to remove that stigma is to have a respected personality or a celebrity come forth and say it’s actually respectable to be a hawker. I mean, everyone loves a celebrity and if said celebrity can drive home the message of respectability to the trade, then more power to him I say.

However, that’s not the complete story: Jenny Miller’s article only highlighted the celebrities but did not mention the rest of the World Street Food Dialogue participants which includes a few non-celebrity but no less inspiring people like, for example, Arbind Singh, a coordinator of the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), which aims to protect and promote the rights of more than 500,000 NASVI members who are all street vendors.

Regarding the gender imbalance of the Council, I believe it was explained in Jenny Miller’s article that it was unintentional. I would like to add that Jenny Miller named 2 female personalities (you’re not a celebrity if you’re not on TV) to participate. Perhaps next year more women would step up.

Especially when the Council is always on the look out for     actively seeking     wants     needs     open to    welcomes women. πŸ™‚

2008July05-Summer in Lithuania-65

Singapore’s Street Food Evolution as a model for the rest of the world to follow

I agree with Ms. Eckhart’s objection to using Singapore as a model to be used in all countries; such a prescriptive approach is ridiculous in a global context. However if she had attended the World Street Food Congress Dialogue sessions, she’d find out that nothing could be further from the truth.

The dialogue sessions, to me, were an eye-opener because of the sharing of awe-inspiring stories of how each country faced their own challenges and how they adapted, improvised and overcame.

With shared experiences coming from a gamut of people from celebrities, personalities to government officials and people on the ground, fighting in the trenches as it were, the takeaway (hi Weylin!) from the dialogue sessions is a body of knowledge that can be used and adapted to the local situation. By people on the ground.

I’m sure the students that attended the dialogue would agree with me that the shared experience of “you are not alone in this fight” itself is invaluable and warms the cockles of our hearts.

Lok Lok

Crazy to skip Penang on a street food-fueled tour of southeast Asia

Street food is prevalent in Malaysia but it is most dominant in Penang. Recognized by foreign journalists as Asia’s Street Food Capital, it would be a mistake to skip Penang’s street food offerings.

Also because you’d be starved for fine-dining options there. πŸ™‚

However extolling the virtues of one street food culture/offering/ambience etc over another is not what the World Street Food Congress is about. This is left to the local guides and bloggers etc, etc.

The Other Penang Laksa

What the World Street Food Congress is about

The World Street Food Congress, I feel, is about heritage; it’s preservation, continuation and evolution.

It is all very well and good to praise the uncle that sells snail noodles by the river in Viet Nam or the uncle that sells Char Kway Teow on a street in Malaysia or the uncle that sells Gira from a barrel in the streets of Lithuania but all of this will soon become memories if there is no succession planning and a career path for the younger generation all over the world to step up and take street food to the next level.

Heritage is a long-term effort that requires vision, collaboration and open-mindedness. Pockets of independent action are sub-optimal; harnessing and sharing of effort, experience and knowledge to preserve and evolve the street food heritage is what the World Street Food Congress is trying to do.

And in such a global context, parochialism is meaningless and merely an exercise in grandstanding.


Mee Tai Mak Noodles with Beef Balls



Ramly Burger


2008July05-Summer in Lithuania-75

Posted on 13th Jun 2013 in Food and Drink, Musings


There Are 5 Comments


KY commented on June 13, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Succession planning and a career path for hawkers? You kidding me? IT’s not about that.

IN places like Indonesia and Thailand, street food are flourishing and will continue to flourish. IT’s because of the low cost of operation. You don’t pay rent for a warung. You don’t pay rent to start a pork satay stall(not that I heard of) on the streets of BKK. They flourish because the environment allow them to. In Singapore, we literally kicked them off the streets into their retirement. Noodles and rice foodcourts are nowadays operated by cooks from Malaysia who are here for a couple of years to save some $$ and return. We kicked them off the street. Singapore’s street food future are destined to be doomed.


ivan commented on June 14, 2013 at 8:22 am

KY, most of them proliferate because there is no other career path for them. Given a choice of a comfortable paying job in an air-conditioned office, I’m sure many will take it over a career as a hawker.

I can’t comment about the information you provided about rent because it’s based on hearsay.

Our food courts are mostly manned by foreign labor because they are cheaper because Singaporeans prefer higher-paying jobs and hence cost more to hire at food courts.

Succession planning is to ensure that recipes and techniques don’t get lost when people retire and career path planning is to help people see that being a hawker is a viable career option.

All of these help to preserve the heritage.

And if I follow your argument correctly, the Singaporean Street Food future is still sound because they will be foreigners coming in fill the niche. Especially after seeing the success stories of people returning with “some $$”. πŸ™‚


KY commented on June 14, 2013 at 1:19 pm

What you mentioned are some of the reasons. But there are also people with no more career path than them right here in Singapore and yet they can’t do the same in Singapore what those peple are doing in Indonesia, Vietnam or Thaland. I remembered when I first moved into Tampines in the early 80s, there are still street hawkers paddling the street selling wanton mee, char kway teow. Singapore gahment have literally ceased the street food trade and move them into the hawker centre/food court. At the sae time, they made food business so inviable to operate even if you have no other career option because of the high rental high labour blah blah blah, most of the time, it requires quite a substantial capital to start in the first place.

I am pretty sure people don’t pay rent to operate a eatery in the form of Warungs in Indonesia. IT’s part of their house anyway. As for street hawking in Thailand, in some places they have to pay ‘gangs’ some sort of ‘protection $$’ monthly to operate within the gang’s vincinity. But that’s beside the point. My point is it is very much an affordable business to operate and the many stalls on the streets there are testaments to that.

What makes you think hawkers don’t make higher? That’s a sweeping statement you made that doesn’t resonate with me. Selling food is a tough job but it can be equally rewarding. Our food courts are mostly manned by foreign labor because, there are no succession from in the family. That’s the point I was trying to make. In places like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam and many others, you’ll realise these people selling food aren’t just selling for fun. Most of them learn the trade from familys or extended families. The recipes, methods of cooking, the skills and the art are passed down generations through generations. That is how sucession comes about. You can’t plan this type of succession or duplicate it artificially. When you try, you see investors buying over the business and getting some chinaman to tend the stall and that do not cultivate the art/passion/preserve of cooking. So my point is, succession yes we know but it is not planned the way you are thinking. IT has to come from a natural evolvement and what gahment can do it to provide the environment for it to develop gradually. My point is, it’s the gahment’s policies that taking away all these and here you’re talking about artificially planning the succession.

Recipes and techniques are masterpieces. All are unique. You can teach 10 person to cook wah kee prawn noodles and give them 1 year to practice and all will produce to you 10 bowl of prawn noodles differently. It ain’t done that way in preserving any food or heritage for that matter. IF yes then just go to every stall and document all their recipes to be printed in a book and your job is done.

Well, the street food at Singapore flyers are supposed to be preserving some of our makan heritage. But I passed by there last week and it was only 10% full. Bak chor mee at $5. Drinks serve to you in some funny pot for $2 each. IF you call that preserving heritage I say save your time because people aren’t silly, they can tell the artificial stuffs from the real stuffs.

The Singapore street food future is sound? IT’s destined to be doomed because more and more people are going to take ‘high paying jobs like what you said” and more and more hawkers are going to take their art/recipes/secrets into their retirement and the food business will only be for rich investors to come in and do franchising and more and more foreigners will be tending these stalls. In 20 years time, char kway teow will be as rare as beef noodles today.


Arie parikesit commented on June 14, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Hi Hi

Thankfully Uncle Ah Chye of Penang Rojak made it to the event, we need him more than Miss Eckhardt, enuff said

Arie Parikesit
Street Food – Celebrate Diversity


Arie parikesit commented on June 14, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Some of the billionaires in Indonesia actually street food bosses, that slowly hike their fortune from 1 cart to 2 carts, to a shop, to many shops, stories similar to Loi Ah Koon’s Ya Kun kaya are all over the country, they made more than a Phd or Bank manager πŸ™‚ thats why a lots of the families still keen to continue the business, its so profitable

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