Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Singapore’s hawker culture Unesco listing shows what’s missing in Thai street food scene

By Sirinya Wattanasukchai

December 21, 2020

Singapore has done it again! The island state's hawker culture has finally won United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) recognition as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

After almost three years, this island state has successfully made its people's everyday life — officially indicated on the list as "community dining and culinary practices in a multicultural urban context" — gain global acceptance through this prestigious list.

In a Facebook post, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong thanked the people who have worked very hard to get Singapore's hawker culture inscribed on the list.

"The biggest thanks must go to the generations of hawkers for nourishing a nation's stomach and spirits. This recognition would not have come without their sweat, toil and dedication to their profession," said Mr Lee.

He shared a few photos of hawker dishes and encouraged people to celebrate the week by ordering their favourite hawker dishes and sharing a photo under his post.

I'm sure many Thais would be jealous of their Association of Southeast Asian Nations neighbour, as they think their street food culture is second to none.

I myself rather envy Singaporeans for having such a visionary government that attaches importance to its ordinary people, making their everyday lives so relevant.

Remember when the Singapore government successfully convinced the prestigious Michelin Guide to go to their island country in 2016?

Stars were awarded to several fine dining outlets, but the guide notably gave a star each to two food stalls selling chicken rice and pork noodles which cost around S$2 to S$5.

They were both real street food where locals queue for their daily meals.

Should we be reminded of Thailand's first inclusion in the 2017 Michelin Guide, when Jay Fai in Bangkok — the only entry that was categorised as "street food" — won a star? Isn't it ironic that no workers on a minimum wage could afford any of her dishes?

Singapore is certainly proud of its food culture and it has always tried to create a vibrant food scene to attract tourists. Such efforts do not mean that the Lee Hsien Loong government places tourists before local people.

But Thai authorities don't seem to share this visionary outlook.

In fact, at the same time when the Lee Hsien Loong government pushed its hawker culture for the Unesco list, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) declared war on food vendors in the capital city under its clean-up campaign.

The administration insisted it would clean and reclaim public space from vendors who had illegally taken over pavements on main roads and open spaces like Klong Ong Ang for public use.

Another space that the BMA managed to reclaim in a separate mission back in 2018, is the Mahakan Fort community.

The community, apart from its rich history, took pride in the delicious fish maw soup made by a resident, in addition to some other delicacies. Now that all have been evicted, all those dishes have disappeared.

In these controversial campaigns, the BMA "successfully" cleaned and reclaimed those public spaces for public use.

But instead of improving those spaces and make them relevant to local residents, it chose to erase the people's history and way of life — turning parts of the old town into a Disneyland.

For example, Bangkok chose to erase the street food history in more than 500 spots across the city.

The authorities seem to be fixated on the idea of street food being sold on the actual street, rather than establishing proper markets to facilitate food vendors and the millions of city dwellers who rely largely on street food, as well as improving hygiene.

The BMA chose to strictly enforce the law, making street vending an illegal trade.

A public outcry over the campaign eventually forced the BMA to adjust its policy, keeping a few food streets, such as in Chinatown and at Khao San Road, open — but only because those areas cater to tourists.

It has little, if any, idea that street food doesn't necessarily mean food sold on the street or by the street.

In Singapore's case, street food or hawker food has been sold in centres where standards can be maintained.

A series of petitions by street vendors, backed by the support from town planning experts, has caused the BMA to review its campaign. Now, it pledges that it will allow trading on certain spots.

That said, the agency has never made it clear at a policy level about what it will do to street food vendors, who are also a part of our culture.

Going back to the intangible list, it doesn't matter if Singapore's hawker culture has been added to the list, or if Thailand has failed to propose its famous street food culture to the Unesco.

Ultimately, what matters is that the state must adopt an inclusive approach in its development policy, accommodating ordinary people and promoting their way of life. 



Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a freelance writer and Bangkok Post columnist.


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