The finance secretary has announced funding for a Food Truck Pilot Scheme. But is this another step towards Hong Kong becoming an international culinary destination, or a way for an out of touch administration to curry favour with an increasingly cynical constituency? Nik Addams investigates. Additional reporting by Jamie Lee
There’s never been a more exciting time to be a foodie in Hong Kong. Our rapidly changing culinary landscape is as diverse as it has ever been, with the past two years having seen a star roster of international chefs opening outposts in our city. Concurrently, there’s been a deliberate push away from formal fine dining experiences that were once the norm, with a shift towards decidedly more casual dining rooms and pop-up events that offer different types of experiences for an increasingly discerning clientele.
And it seems that the state of our steadily democratising dining scene hasn’t escaped the attention of our government, with finance secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announcing in his 2015-16 budget speech back in February the introduction of the Food Truck Pilot Scheme. It seems a natural next step – food trucks not only provide a different type of dining experience in their offer of fast, affordable and quality streetside grub, but also represent a way in for the little guy who might not be able to afford the overheads associated with a bricks and mortar site, particularly in a city like Hong Kong with prohibitive rents and the need to regularly import produce. But with public sentiment towards the government divided at best, the new scheme hasn’t quite yet proven the policy slam dunk that LegCo – and, more specifically, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau’s Tourism Commission, who are in charge of the programme – probably thought it might.
“If you ask me whether I’ll persuade my members to join [the Scheme], the answer is no – very simple, cut and dry,” says Simon Chung, founder and CEO of the independent Hong Kong Food Truck Association (HKFTA). Chung set up his group nearly a year before the government first announced their plans, and has more than 10 permanent members who take part in pop-up events around town. And while he has seen increased interest in his trucks since Tsang’s announcement, Chung outlines several problems with the government’s plans.
Calls for applications may have only opened at the end of March, but the slated licensing costs have already priced out many potential vendors. The license alone will set back successful applicants – who will be selected through a two-stage selection process – a cool $600,000. “How can a start-up get the money just to begin?” questions Chung. And while operators in need of capital will be able to apply for loans of up to $300,000 under the Microfinance Scheme issued by the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation Limited (with an above-market interest rate of up to nine percent), “For a new business,” Chung states, “starting out with a $300,000 debt is very risky.”
Not to mention, the $600,000 also doesn’t cover inevitable overheads like equipment, training or staffing. Affordability for both owners and customers is an essential element of the food truck model. For Chung ‘food trucks are about good food that’s fast, simple, and cheap’. But the HKFTA head warns that the associated high costs will all but negate this component. “The department is setting all this up to make the costs this high! So how much would it cost for a vendor to sell a stick of fishballs, for example? We’d be talking about maybe $25, so why would I come to your food truck and spend that much, even if it’s good, when I can just go to Temple Street and pay less than half?”
While fishballs have recently become a hot button topic in their own right, the example used by Chung alludes to a voice that’s been excluded from the food truck conversation altogether – Hong Kong’s traditional street food vendors. When asked about importing a new scheme while the city’s traditional street hawkers – whether the declining number of dai pai dong or the much-discussed ‘fishball stands’ – the Tourism Commission could only offer this response: “The Food Truck Scheme is a tourism project. The operators will not be issued hawker licences.”
The food truck scheme has excluded the voices of many local vendors like Jonathan So
The minimal response could suggest that something bigger is at play here. Hong Kong’s traditional street food vendors are an increasingly endangered species – the once ubiquitous, quintessential Hong Kong open-air restaurants now number just 28 in total. Jonathan So, a second-generation owner of Wan Chai’s last remaining dai pai dong, the 62-year-old Tak Yu, notes that not only do new regulations mean that he won’t be able to inherit the licence from his mother once she passes, but also that ‘the government haven’t really helped us at all’ with financial support. With annual licence fees for dai pai dongs costing as little as several thousand dollars, perhaps this is no coincidence. Hong Kong’s iconic Mobile Softee ice cream trucks have also been subject to similar treatment – after the government stopped issuing hawker licences in 1978, it was decided that the ice cream truck licences could not be transferred to other vehicles. Today, they serve as a roaming, antique reminder of Hong Kong’s once thriving street food scene. Chung, however, sees the decline in traditional street food hawkers through the lens of an old Chinese adage he shares with us, “‘If old things don’t fade out, new things won’t come’. Whether you agree or not, society has to advance. But I do miss the traditional.”
Comprehending the incoming programme as a tourist scheme is essential to understanding how it will operate. Location is also a key component of the traditional food truck model. The eight proposed locations for the trucks are aimed ostensibly at the tourist market, including Central Harbourfront, Disneyland and Wong Tai Sin temple. While it’s no secret that space is at a premium in our city, the Tourism Commission has also stated that the proposed sites were chosen as they ‘have a management authority, with enough space to accommodate the vehicle and allow customers to line up to buy food’. While the 16 trucks will rotate among their locations on an as yet unspecified regular basis, Chung points out that the proposed sites could serve as challenging for the winning licence holders.
“There have got to be some [locations] which are very good for some operators, and some which are not,” Chung says. “Let’s take selling hamburgers in Wong Tai Sin, for example. When you look at the schedule for the year, you know for four months it’s going to be winter, so how they adapt to this I don’t know.” The vendors won’t be able to adapt by changing menus – in order to secure their licence, each potential vendor must first participate in a ‘cook-off’, and present to a currently undeclared panel of judges their signature dish. But under the scheme right now, a change in a truck’s signature dish will lead to a licence becoming voided. As for the cook off, the Tourism Commission tells us that this will ensure that ‘eligible persons and companies’ are on a ‘level playing field’. “Under the Pilot Scheme, we attach importance to the creativity and quality of the food being sold instead of the capital or business size of the applicants,” the Commission’s exclusive statement to Time Out reads.
A particularly interesting part of the Tourist Commission’s statement was in response to the chosen process for selecting the intended locations. As well as the aforementioned space considerations, the Commission believes that ‘it is also important that the locations of food trucks should maintain certain distances from existing restaurants to avoid unnecessary competition’. Perhaps though it’s all just a matter of being lost in translation. “In Chinese, we call food trucks in Hong Kong ‘gourmet trucks’”, Chung says. “But if I’m looking for a gourmet experience, I would go to a fine dining restaurant. If this is the mentality, it’s wrong from the beginning.”
For more information on the Food Truck Pilot Scheme, visit tourism.gov.hk.