Flying Sand

Food truck scheme hard to stomach after glory days of Hong Kong’s street hawkers

Niall Fraser pines for the era of ubiquitous fishball stalls, though he might give the stinky tofu a pass

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 12:44pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 8:18pm

When I arrived in Hong Kong just shy of quarter of a century ago, the city literally reeked of street food.

From the now strictly controlled stinky tofu – the powerful stench of which I swear, if condensed and bottled, could be sold as a chemical weapon – to more fishball stalls than you could shake a spiky stick at, the Fragrant Harbour was, from a culinary point of view, just that.

A walk down pretty much any street in those days was nothing short of a full-frontal attack on my underdeveloped and uncultured notion of what constituted food. Back then, my idea of exotic started at vegetables not cooked to within an inch of their life and finished at a clove of garlic.

The sheer variety and availability of rough and ready street food was surpassed only by the ravenous rate at with which everyone – from the bare-chested, triad-tattooed delivery man to the upwardly-mobile, pencil-skirted woman about town – scoffed the stuff down their gullets.

Then, the inevitable creeping corporatisation of what we eat and where we eat it began to consume the gas-fired mobile wok operators and table and chair strewn dai pai dong spectacles that made up Hong Kong’s haphazard but happy dining landscape.

The process was accelerated – and given a deceptive cloak of public health priority – by the deadly Sars outbreak which, quite understandably, saw the city embark on a municipal clean-up campaign that left even the most seedy and slime-lined Wan Chai back alley clean enough to eat your dinner off of.

I’m no medical expert, but I reckon more people in this city get sick as a result of the overprescription of immune-system-sapping antibiotics, which, in my opinion are handed out to complicit patients in criminal quantities by doctors either too lazy or too busy with other moneymaking schemes to tackle the root causes of the original illness.

Multimedia: How Hong Kong’s hawkers face a struggle to survive

The great Hong Kong street food vanishing act was pulled off with the help of an able assistant in the shape of a veritable army of buttoned-up government jobsworths in ill-fitting uniforms with all the brainpower of a lobotomised lab rat, with an attitude to match.

It was with all this in mind that I read – with some glee – news this week that the wheels continue to come off the great Hong Kong Food Truck Tourist Revival scheme.

This monumental hash was a slow-motion, food truck wreck waiting to happen from the moment former finance chief and failed candidate to lead the city John Tsang Chun-wah forgot to put his brain in gear before opening his mouth to announce it.

As ill-conceived gimmicks go, this ranks even worse than, I kid you not, a noise abatement measure floated by officials for an ill-fated Michael Jackson concert in the early 1990s that would have seen concertgoers issued with a single glove to suppress the sound of clapping.

Agreed, the single-glove submission veers onto the realm of the surreal, but at least it wasn’t actually adopted.

The food truck scheme, however, despite being hobbled from the outset by official hubris and shackled by a Byzantine maze of rules and regulations I bet we will never see applied to the banking industry, was.

Broke and broken, food truck operator calls it quits after losing HK$800,000 in just four months

As the South China Morning Post reported on Monday: “After high-stakes cook-off auditions, millions of dollars invested and a much-trumpeted roll-out across the city, only five of 15 businesses in the government’s food truck scheme have brought in HK$1 million in their first eight months.’’

The man in whose lap this dog’s dinner has landed, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah, says he’s going to see how the pilot scheme pans out.

Forget it Ed, do the right thing and put Hong Kong out of this trucking misery now.