Here’s why Hong Kong’s food trucks might leave a bad taste in your mouth

Yonden Lhatoo says stationary food trucks at overcrowded tourist sites are not such a great plan, and we should instead be promoting our cultural assets such as the humble dai pai dong

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 7:48pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

When Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah first pitched the idea of having food trucks around Hong Kong, in his budget speech in February, I remember finding it the only interesting idea in his entire spending blueprint.

While it piqued my interest, I also remember others being very sceptical about the proposal and whether it would work in our already overcrowded city, but I advised them to hold their peace pending further details, which we have now. I have to admit they were right to have reservations.

Here’s how it’s going to work – or not. Under a pilot scheme, 12 food trucks will be allowed to operate at six prime tourist spots. There will be two each at Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai; Salisbury Garden and Art Square in Tsim Sha Tsui; the Central harbourfront; Ocean Park; and Hong Kong Disneyland. The trucks will ply their business rotating among the six designated sites.

Talk about an anticlimax. The trucks will be more or less parked permanently at tourist spots that most Hongkongers tend to shun anyway because of the crowds. Don’t expect them to be mobile in the sense that they can stop by the roadside, pull up in your neighbourhood or park at any venue other than the predesignated six spots. Public space is a luxury as it is.

To me, that’s the equivalent of going to a tiny restaurant rooted in one spot with the only draw being that it’s shaped like a truck. Thanks, but no thanks. Commuting to a tourist spot so I can line up for food handed to me from a hole cut out of the side of a motor vehicle is not really my cup of tea. And I’ll have to stand and eat as well?

What’s even more off-putting is the lack of a level playing field for those who want to take a shot at this new business opportunity. It’s already looking like the big restaurant chains will be the road hogs shoving aside the start-ups as they have the money and the means to get rolling right away.

As one food truck dealer told the Post, most of those inquiring about buying a vehicle are well-established food and beverage businesses, and prices are already going up.

I thought this was supposed to be a chance for young, would-be entrepreneurs or mom and pop shop-level operators, not a government-sponsored handout for big players who don’t need one.

Why not capitalise instead on Hong Kong’s unique heritage and give a much-needed boost to the city’s traditional street food culture and grass-roots eating establishments such as our good old dai pai dong. We may take them for granted, but visitors love them and seek them out to savour their originality and genuine charm. They’re assets we’re overlooking because they’re not bright and shiny, like a brand new food truck.

The minister who hit upon this idea was inspired by a Hollywood film. Perhaps he’s not being realistic. Tsang proved how out of touch he was when he once claimed he was middle class. He invited further ridicule by going on to suggest that middle-class folk were those who drank coffee and appreciated French cinema.

The other minister who is now tasked with making the idea work does not enjoy a reputation as a man with his finger on the public pulse either. Chauffeur-driven Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung earned a bit of notoriety for being clueless when, responding to concerns about trains being too full because of overcrowding caused by a flood of mainland visitors, he suggested we should all just wait for the next train.

I hope they both chew on all this as they proceed with an idea that is well meant but could backfire. It’s food for thought.