Can Food Trucks Replace Hong Kong’s Dai Pai Dongs?

With Hong Kong’s dai pai dongs – open-air food stalls – all but driven from the city by inheritance restrictions, the government is trying to replace them with food trucks, the brainchild of Financial Secretary John Tsang. Over the weekend, in an effort to jumpstart the phenomenon, the Food Truck Hong Kong Festival took to the streets in Central District PMQ, a creative hub for local design talent and cultural events.

Dai pai dongs had been a favorite for office workers and tourists for generations until the government decided they were unhygienic. Critics believe getting rid of them is an unnecessary act by a relentlessly nanny government out to take the fun out of life. A bloody clash in Mong Kok between police and vendors earlier this year confirmed the government’s adamant position, and ended in what has come to be called the Fish Ball Riot as unlicensed hawkers pelted police with stones and other ammunition. As for the handful of itinerant hawkers who continue to be licensed, their permits were issued at least 40 years ago and can only be passed to family members.

Officials insist that terminating the industry is not the government’s goal. They just want it cleaned up.

"Food trucks can sell fish balls. Food trucks can also sell beef offal. It's not a big problem," Tsang said during his budget speech last year. "Most important is ... trucks selling specialty foods will be regulated and have a hygiene guarantee and licensing."

Little benefit for the hawkers

Leung Chi-yuen, a teaching fellow in the Department of Applied Social Sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, whose field of research includes hawkers and markets, doesn’t think the hawker communities will benefit from the Food Trucks as it is ''only a kind of tourism hardware or infrastructure which is suggested for the tourist’s gaze.''

''The criteria of the applicants are too-state oriented which is not targeted on the present cooked-food hawkers but rather some commercial and chain operators who have enough money and expertise in applications and winning the competition in this pilot stage,” said Leung. However, he expressed hope that it might lift Hong Kong street food to the next stage with, open air markets in the downtown as in Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand.

''Only until that time, the food truck proposal can benefit the employment, the preservation of street food culture and public space usage in Hong Kong. It is out of bureaucratic concerns and the property market interests that the cooked food hawker policy cannot be further developed in Hong Kong now.''

In any case, there are to be 12 such rolling kitchens in a pilot scheme, operating at six locations around the city for two years. They are to be located at Wan Chai’s Golden Bauhinia Square, Salisbury Garden at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui, Central Harborfront, Ocean Park, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Critics complain that the trucks are going to be parked in tourist areas, and not where they would be convenient for office workers.

Unfortunately, a lot of the food at the festival to promote the concept probably wasn’t the food customers will find on the trucks when they finally hit the streets, and it was expensive. While Winnie Yeung, 32, liked the idea of the trucks, she complained that the offerings leaned towards hot dogs and hamburgers instead of the indigenous food that Hong Kong’s locals find more appealing.

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''There is no variety of food,” she complained. “It is quite similar. Only hot dogs and burgers. If I eat a burger, I will not eat a hot-dog. Although there are some cookies, which are good. I would like to try something else as well.''

Selfie search

T C Ho came to Hong Kong’s central district over the weekend hoping to take a selfie with local stars who were there to open a festival celebrating – wait for it – food trucks, the ubiquitous, colorful rolling kitchens that serve millions of office workers in cities in the west, but not here.

''There are a lot of shopping malls or shopping centers in Hong Kong, but we can’t see markets like this,” he said, grazing on snacks at trucks and booths at the festival. “This kind of event should be more in Hong Kong.”

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The authorities assigned the Tourism Commission to pore over the nuts and bolts of the food truck industry, researching American, European and Asian cities' experiences. At the end of 2015, the Commission released a paper titled ‘‘Legislative Council Panel on Economic Development Introduction of Food Trucks to Hong Kong.''

The paper says the trucks ''will add fun and vibrancy to Hong Kong’s tourist attractions (including the Central and Tsim Sha Tsui waterfronts) by providing diverse, creative and high-quality food options to tourists and the locals. It also aims to showcase the good standard of food hygiene and safety in Hong Kong.''

There are no specific regulations over the trucks. The operators work under the standard Food Business Regulation. In an effort to woo the natives, Hong Kong's first Food Truck Festival was organized by a group called FEED and presented by COOK IN, a marketing company specializing in the gourmet industry. Kia, the South Korean auto manufacturer, supplied the trucks. On the first day, more than 5.000 visitors participated in the event, according to the organizers.

Four food trucks and 15 food and lifestyle product booths presented their wares, which had little to do with the trucks. At the market's threshold, young women offered cookies. They were representing the Hong Kong-based HomieCookies food company.

‘’In Hong Kong, you can't really find cookies like ours,'' said Pinky Ngie, director of retail operations emphasizing the uniqueness of the texture and flavor of the product.

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At the HomieCookies truck

HomeFood, a Hong Kong-based food company, was at the right corner of the exhibition, there to give a hand for expats, many of whom don’t cook, or can’t. They provide raw ingredients or half-cooked food for people who want to cook and eat at home.

'' Some people like to cook a little but not that much. We make very easy for them, providing very quality food. The principle is DIY-- do it yourself. When they like they want to cook they can just put things together and put out a meal,'' said Joan Yuan, HomeFood’s baker. The company imports the food from the US, Japan, Korea, and Spain. Their main customers are Westerners. They deliver not only just ingredients but have an option also to deliver cooked meals. Foreigners apply to them, especially, when organizing home parties.

Drinkers gathered at the center of the market, where Luc Belaire, a French brandy was represented. The brand's network includes 18 countries with the largest market in the US.

''We are in Hong Kong since January. We have received very good response from the consumers. Everybody welcomes the brand as it is something new and something different,'' said Pierre Pinault, Asia Pacific sales manager for Belaire.

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Belair’s Pinault

Entry to the festival was free although participants had to buy tokens for food.

''I love it. I think about creating an event for friends. We can invite friends to come here,'' said Samuel Mok, 22.

As for Ho, the young man who came for the selfie with the stars, the main problem was not his failure to click with them but the high prices. Some of the items, he said, although tasty, were twice as expensive as originally.

Manvel Keshishyan is a reporter and photographer completing a master’s degree in journalism at Hong Kong University