In February 2017, we saw food trucks hitting the streets of Hong Kong for the first time. Peddling a range of Chinese and Western snacks and delicacies, the trucks are part of a government initiative aimed at broadening culinary options for tourists. However, despite initial excitement surrounding the rollout, the scheme has invited its fair share of criticism.
Out of an initial pool of almost 200 applicants, 16 vendors were chosen to participate in the scheme, following a cook-off challenge that took place in July 2016. The first eleven trucks were launched on February 2, 2017, selling casual bites ranging from grilled squid to fruit smoothie bowls.
The launch of the first batch of trucks generated long queues and extensive media coverage. However, many commentators have also seized the opportunity to criticize the food truck scheme. Some complain that the government is over-managing the food trucks and driving up startup costs to exorbitant heights. Others see the scheme as a tourist gimmick, while drawing attention to the ironic fact that the government is simultaneously suppressing Hong Kong’s native street food culture.
The cost to set up a truck requires an investment of HK$1 million. That includes hefty fees for various government licenses, as well as the costs incurred by the government’s stringent requirements for the food trucks – including the need for a 120-liter water tank, a 180-liter waste water tank, at least six square meters of kitchen space, a backup power supply, and more. The regulations were so strict that the vendors could not import fully equipped trucks, but instead had to pay for the trucks to be specially outfitted at great cost.
Given such hefty startup costs, it’s uncertain if the trucks will be able to turn a profit. What’s more, the costs offer a competitive advantage to big chains while putting off young, independent cooks who may be unwilling to risk such a large investment.
Another consequence of the government regulations is lack of flexibility. Vendors must to stick to their original, approved menu, whether the customers like the food or not.
Some have criticized the food truck scheme for being blatantly geared toward tourists, rather than Hong Kong’s local populace. A government press release describes the scheme as “an important tourism project which adds fun and energy to the tourist locations in Hong Kong.” Consequently, the trucks are located in areas that get a lot of tourist traffic, including out-of-the-way attractions such as Hong Kong Disneyland, which is located in a remote part of Lantau Island.
In what some see as an ironic twist, Hong Kong’s native street food culture is in decline, thanks to government crackdowns on street hawkers. In February 2016, health officials clamped down on pop-up street carts selling native delicacies such as steamed fish balls, grilled squid, and rice rolls without a license. It led to clashes between activists and the Hong Kong police that were dubbed as the “Fishball Revolution.”
Hong Kong’s decades-old street food tradition is considered an invaluable part of Hong Kong culture. Since the early twentieth century, street hawkers have been selling delicacies like fish balls, stinky tofu, and egg waffles from carts and stalls. Streetside eateries known as dai pai dongs flourished in the 1950s, serving bowls of noodles, pork over rice, and dumplings at affordable prices. However, the government hasn’t issued a hawker license since 1973, and began buying back dai pai dong licenses in the 1980s. Nowadays, there are only 50 dai pai dongs left.
Hong Kong’s native street food culture sprung up as a grassroots response to local culinary appetites. In contrast, the government’s food truck initiative is a tightly regulated scheme targeted primarily at tourists. Stringent government oversight of the food trucks means that vendors won’t have the independence to experiment with their menus or truck locations according to local consumer habits.
Nevertheless, the food trucks proved popular during their first days of operation. At one truck, the Pineapple Canteen, hungry customers lining up for a sugary pineapple bun found themselves waiting in line for over an hour. The high demand caused Pineapple Canteen to set a daily quota on the number of pineapple buns produced, in order to reduce the strain placed on the staff. Ultimately, only time will tell if the food trucks are here to stay.