CITY BEAT TAMMY TAM
City Beat
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Linking Hong Kong food trucks to ordinary people’s lives should make for a tasty exercise

Latest government move to offer greater flexibility for operators reflects need for officials to ensure people understand why grand ideas matter to them

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 April, 2017, 5:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 April, 2017, 8:44pm

You can’t help but feel sorry sometimes for commerce minister Greg So Kam-leung when you see him beaming happily as he poses in front of food trucks for the media cameras. Whether he actually enjoys the cuisine on offer in this seemingly gimmicky government bid to attract more tourists, it’s part of his job to make it look like he does, even if it’s become a hot potato to sell to a sceptical public.

The pilot scheme was launched months ago after former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah came up with the idea in his 2015 budget, inspired by his early years in the United States and more recently by the 2014 Hollywood film Chef. But since then, the initiative has been dogged by mixed feedback from both food truck operators and the public at large – especially over the lack of flexibility in the government’s rules.

It’s too early to draw a definite conclusion as to whether the plan is working or not, but the criticism has apparently prompted the government’s latest move in designating two new locations where food trucks can be parked for business – the Science Park, which feeds off one of Hong Kong’s biggest satellite cities, Sha Tin, and the AsiaWorld-Expo near the airport. The first batch of trucks was basically confined to major tourist destinations such as Tsim Sha Tsui and Disneyland.

This incremental relaxation of rules raises an important question: how do you link government-initiated economic projects to ordinary people’s lives with more than just good intentions?

The frustrations of the food truck operators make you wonder if the scheme is intended to boost tourism, promote street food culture, give local hawkers another business option or is just a little bit of everything in the name of diversifying Hong Kong’s economic activities, whatever that really means.

The fact that it falls within So’s territory suggests it is designed more as a tourist attraction. That means it was never the hawkers’ cup of tea, even if the government considered giving street food pedlars something new to try. It’s not only unaffordable to them – requiring an investment of at least HK$1 million – but also difficult to implement because of all the strict licensing requirements.

The government stopped issuing new licences to itinerant hawkers in the 1970s due to hygiene and safety considerations. Conflicts between hawkers and the government’s frontline food regulators have been common over the past decades.

Ironically, Hong Kong’s hawkers are often portrayed by the media as an underprivileged group trying every means to earn their own living instead of relying on government subsidies. That wins them public sympathy beyond the gastronomic goodwill generated by their fish balls and other popular street snacks.

This is not to suggest that illegal hawking should be encouraged, Rather, with some creative thinking there can be a variety of ways to attract local and overseas tourists while adding something new to Hong Kong’s food landscape.

It was therefore quite a pleasant surprise to see the recent success of the Sham Shui Po 2017 Easter Market – a two-day street food carnival organised by NGO Hong Kong Community Economic Development.

It attracted plenty of visitors drawn by the nostalgia and novelty of food cooked by hawkers and local residents, a good example of reducing rigid bureaucracy by adding some flexibility to the regulatory recipe.

Food trucks and traditional street food stands may be different concepts, but they share the need for a common ingredient to success – flexibility in government policy to make things more relevant to ordinary people.

The same logic applies to mega projects such as the “Belt and Road Initiative” and more recently the “Greater Bay Area” development. If it’s only about legal and financial services in the city, why should the average person on the street care?

The government has to ensure that people understand why grand ideas matter to them and how. Only then will things taste better.