24 October 2016
Stiff rules and high investment thresholds would mean that the food trucks that will go into operation in Hong Kong by the year-end won’t be serving authentic local street delicacies. Photo: Internet
Stiff rules and high investment thresholds would mean that the food trucks that will go into operation in Hong Kong by the year-end won’t be serving authentic local street delicacies. Photo: Internet

How we are going the wrong way in the food truck scheme

After months of scrutiny and deliberations, the government announced in December a trial scheme that will allow 12 food trucks to be operated at popular tourist spots in Hong Kong by the end of 2016.

Under the scheme there will be two trucks at each of the following spots: Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai, the harborfront promenade at Central, Salisbury Garden and Art Square in Tsim Sha Tsui, and the open space outside Ocean Park and Disneyland.

As the food truck scheme, which was first proposed by Financial Secretary John Tsang in his budget speech last year, will be run as a tourism project, it will fall under the jurisdiction of the Tourism Board, which will set up a special task force to oversee the operation.

On the surface, it appears the government has finally taken the plunge and given the green light to the much eagerly awaited food truck plan, which many hope can introduce our authentic indigenous street food to food lovers from around the world.

However, as the old saying goes, “the devil is in the details”. A close look reveals a catch, and also the fact that the threshold for participation in the program is beyond what most street food sellers in Hong Kong can afford.

First, under the proposed scheme, applicants have to submit a detailed business plan on the kind of food they are going to sell, the design of their trucks, and their financial soundness. The plan has to be laid out before a panel made up of government officials, representatives of the tourism venues (i.e. big real estate developers), the Tourism Board and food experts for screening.

According to the administration, cuisine creativity and the design concept of the food truck will be among the most important criteria.

And that is not it. After applicants have passed the first round of screening and make it to the second round, they will have to face an even tougher challenge: a professional culinary contest, in which they will have to pull off their very best and prepare their signature dishes for some very picky judges to taste. The judges will then decide on the 12 best entries, and the winners will be given permits to run their food trucks at designated locations for 2 years.

The arrangement of the screening process makes one wonder whether the government officials who came up with this idea got their inspiration from some hit reality shows like “Master Chef”. It goes without saying that the competition is likely to generate media hype and receive massive publicity.

However, given all the demanding requirements and conditions applicants have to meet before making it to the final, plus the huge cost of setting up each truck (approximately HK$600,000), it is almost certain that the 12 operating permits will eventually fall into the hands of either large fast-food chains or big catering conglomerates. Individual street food sellers will stand little chance of getting a slice of this food truck scheme.

And it gets worse. Officials who run the project said the food trucks are not meant to sell ordinary items such as fish balls and egg puffs, even though they are among the most popular and authentic street food in our city. The rule means that at least 90 percent of street food sellers in Hong Kong won’t be eligible to apply for a food truck permit.

It seems our well-educated and high-brow government officials consider street food “classy and trendy” if it’s a Westerner with a beard selling fancy burgers, hotdogs and pizzas from a high-end truck, and a public disgrace if it’s a local old man selling curry fish balls or stinky tofu from a wooden cart. To them, social hierarchy seems to apply to street food too. They didn’t even bother to hide their disdain for the indigenous and cheap street food that many ordinary citizens in our city grew up with and are so accustomed to.

It is important to understand that every city has its own unique food culture that can date back to centuries, and street food often epitomizes the food culture of a place. You just can’t copy someone else’s food culture and make it your own.

Curry fish balls, egg puffs, roasted squid tentacles and beef entrails are traditional street food unique to Hong Kong, and they have a lot of potential to be promoted as our city’s signature food. They are as classy and trendy as any other street food sold in other cities around the world as long as they are prepared in hygienic conditions. Hence, it is absolutely ridiculous that they are taken off from the menu of food trucks. Why are our officials discriminating against our own authentic street food?

What’s the point of making so much effort and spending so much money to put together some food trucks in Hong Kong that sell the same kind of street food foreign tourists can find in any other big city around the world?

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