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UNESCO should dismiss Singapore's application to recognise "street food culture."

Nigel Morris-Co...

What is street food? If Singapore has its way, it's something that characterises the City state and marks it out as as something different. Malaysia is outraged - but other countries should be up in arms, too.


I remember the days when one could walk around the side streets of Hong Kong and find barrows selling bowls of steaming red bean pudding, gai mai bau (the best food in the whole world when it's done in the traditional way) and all kinds of broths plus an array of rice, veg and meat dishes. The've all been swept away in the name of modernity just as they have in Singapore and, although there is strong resistance, Kuala Lumpur has announced a similar plan - although new stalls pop up all the time.

Let's be clear why street food is important: most days, I walk out of my apartment and sit on a grubby plastic stool and have a cup of good strong coffee delivered for less than a third of the price of a far worse beverage in an international chain store coffee shop. Next to the coffee stall there is, in turn, a noodle stall, a chicken rice stall, a congee (rice porridge) stall and, the other way, a bakers' stall selling dan tat (egg tarts) and other things. The quality is high, the portions sufficient without being huge and the prices are low. Several of the stalls are run by members of the same family. There is an early evening-until late beef noodle stall that has been there for over 20 years to my knowledge although there has been a change of owner. There's a stall selling both whole and cut fruit and one selling soya milk and tsing tao jelly drinks. Over the road, there is a noodle stall that opens at 8pm and sells out by midnight: the two brothers who run it have taken over from their father who died recently, aged more than 80, having run the stall for more than 40 years. There, I have met people who have moved out of town but still drive for perhaps 45 minutes to buy the noodles and take them home to their families. Along the road, another night-time noodle stall sells very different but equally delicious noodles. It sells out in three hours. This is street food and it's prevalent across the whole of the greater Kuala Lumpur area with the stainless steel carts designed for the production of one specific dish being all over the place. These are more than food stalls: they are at the heart of the community. Just as in France where one sees old men sitting around, chewing the fat (not literally) and having a drink, so groups of Malaysians sit, no longer smoking because of the recent ban, just having a natter, a cup of tea and - most importantly - not being alone. Every weekday, outside offices in Kuala Lumpur, ad hoc stalls are set up to feed office workers. The service the provide to relatively low paid workers is invaluable.

I can't remember ever seeing a cart on the streets of Singapore. They have been driven into so-called "food courts" where they are permanent. Singapore is rightly proud of its food court culture but it's not street food, no matter how much the Singapore government produces TV programmes, distributed across Asia, promoting it as such. And it's not hawker food because hawkers are, by definition, mobile.

Jakarta, has hawker street food: hand carts are parked in tiny alleys during the day while food is cooked, then pushed out, through Jakarta's hectic traffic, selling a wide range of foods and drinks, including fresh coconuts. Penang has street food, both in the famous Gurney Drive and in the streets. Bangkok has street food: stalls appear in rush hours selling everything from meat or fish and rice to deep fried insects - and there is even one selling branded spirits on a busy street corner. These are hawkers, not the fixed premises in a food court. So are the push-carts selling bhan mi (not to be confused with the Chinese dish ban mee) across Vietnam.

Street food is not even an Asian thing: in the UK, DIY chain B&Q has licensed space in its car parks to semi-permanent stalls. Cockle stalls, now not so common, were the norm in English seaside towns. In New York, wooden huts on the edge of pavements dish out coffee, hot dogs and more to passing crowds. Street food brings life to streets. As cities create more and more private spaces such as shopping centres (with their restricted hours of operation), they are forcing undesirable change on tiny neighbourhood gathering places - and dramatically increasing the cost of the very things that the poor are most likely to eat and drink. You choose - Star*ucks for x or pay 20% of x direct to a family that has been working and forming part of a community for decades?

But don't imagine that food stalls are only for the poor. You can sit having a cup of coffee and at the table next to you you might find the CEO of a bank or the chairman of a major conglomerate: street food connects people to their roots in a way that a soulless food court cannot. At "my" coffee stall, there is a chap who left town several years ago but still comes from time to time to sit with his old pals - knowing that it's virtually certain that some of them will be there. There's another one who spent most of his working life in the civil service in London. The stalls are on the five-foot ways in front of a building that the current owner wants to tear down and replace with a tall apartment block: it was, locals tell me, the Japanese headquarters during the brutal WW2 occupation and the balcony under which we sit was where the Governor would stand to make his proclamations, overlooking the road where Chinese heads were mounted on spikes. There is history far beyond the food here and I feel honoured that these people, including WW2 survivors, have adopted me into their circle and even speak English when I'm there. Some live very simple lives. The street food culture is part of a wider and long standing aspect of life: old apartment blocks have, often, large flats but they have no kitchen. Pre-dating the Millennial trend for not cooking at home and even buying your coffee on the way to work by many decades, it's a way of life that is under threat. That's what should be protected, not food courts.

The whole food-truck thing is about street food, Some of them are producing food that would not be out of place in serious restaurants - and that's become near global. But not in Singapore where food trucks are often corralled into "food parks." Yes, Singapore has good food in its food courts and, by Singapore standards, it's relatively inexpensive. Yes, the food courts are subject to higher standards of hygiene but the only times I've had food poisoning in Asia were once in smart restaurant in Singapore and once in a similar place in Kuala Lumpur. In forty odd years of eating by the side of the road in pretty much every country I've ever been to, if it's available, I've never had even a mild upset from true street food. Part of the reason for that has to be that the vendors are an integral part of the community in ways that mass market food places, with an increasing remoteness from their customers and constantly changing staff, cannot rival. There is loyalty on both sides on those plastic stools.

Yeo Kirk Siang of Singapore's National Heritage Board is quoted as saying this week "What the nomination is about is whether the cultural practice is valued by the community within that country and whether they are committed to safeguarding these practices within their countries. It’s not about countries trying to prove that their cultural practices are better, unique, or that it originated from the country." Yes, and that is precisely why UNESCO should deny the application to recognise "street food" or "hawker culture" in Singapore. It isn't either.

So, UNESCO, which is due to decide on Singapore's application by the end of next year, should boot it out. The application is under the "intangible cultural heritage" section. The simple truth is this: street food belongs to the people, not to a country and, especially not a country that has taken food off the streets. Hawker food is sold by hawkers, not permanent establishments. Protect it by all means, but do it where it still exists and where it contributes to society. That's culture. That's heritage. That's what needs protection - even if cities don't make an application.

 


 

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