Sunday, 9 June 2013

What I Think (1)…

This is my reply to a Penang-based blogger who recently commented on Singapore street food and the inaugural World Street Food Congress.  I won’t go too much into her post, instead I’ll refer interested parties to her blog, Eating Asia dated 7th June 2013 and her article “Keeping the Street in Street Food” in The Asian Wall Street Journal dated 11th March 2013.

"I have three points to make. Firstly, it’s meaningless to compare cities and their street food and argue which is the better. For example, the Nyonya food of Penang, Malacca, Singapore, and even Indonesia are different. I shall not even go into Thailand’s Nyonya cuisine. While they all come under the umbrella of ‘Nyonya’, they have each evolved over generations in their respective locales. They each bear different marks of ingredients, flavor, and stylistic emphasis, brought about by geography, demography, culture, etc, etc. For example, Penang Nyonya has Thai influences while I detect the Cristang element in the Malaccan version. Singapore’s is closer to the Malaccan. Having said that, we all swear by the food we grew up with; so every particular style of food will have its adherents. Therefore, arguing on something as subjective as personal taste in food – and hoping to reach some definitive judgment on it -- is ultimately futile and pointless.

Secondly, WSFC as a discussion platform might not be perfect, but hey, we have to start somewhere. And, it’s just the inaugural instalment. The disappearance and/or mutation of street food is a pattern in all developing/newly affluent societies. It is a cultural change that accompanies urban development. WSFC helps shine the spotlight on this phenomenon. It makes people aware and interested in street food from all over the world, and gets them thinking and discussing about the issues connected with street food. Are the selected council members the most ideal persons for the job? Only time will tell. Their immediate challenge, I think, is to keep an open mind, keep the conversation going, and work together to further illuminate critical issues such as heritage preservation, government involvement, career prospects, business challenges, etc.

Thirdly, we always equate ‘good’ and ‘authentic’ with the old. When we travel we like to see things that have remained, so to speak, in a time warp. I am guilty of this myself. Old architecture, old food, old cultures, appeal to us. But are such expectations fair? It is the right of every society to progress; for its people to enjoy better lives through commerce, technology, politics, etc. But when such advances result in loss of traditional foods, and other similar things, we lament the loss of ‘authenticity’ and ‘the good old days.’ The implication is this: that it’s okay for us to move forward, but when others do so, they’re being shortsighted and callous of their heritage. Isn’t this arrogance and chauvinism?"


Since I last posted my comments in Eating Asia's blog on 9th June , she has responded with the following:

Gastronaut, thanks for your comment. I welcome the discussion. I'm not sure if you read my reply to Umami. I'll answer your points, but with a bit of repetition.
A) Thank you for the Nyonya cuisine primer. I am aware of local variations (you forgot Kelantan Nyonya in your round-up).
As I wrote to Umami, my "best" label was partly tongue-in-cheek, a rejoinder to Singapore Tourism's "street food capital" campaign. When you claim to be a street food capital you are opening yourself up for rejoinders. I would like travelers to know that George Town (and Penang) is a street food destination. That is all.
And while I agree that it is useless to label any city's XYZ food "best" -- bec taste is so subjective -- I am going to continue to assert that George Town's street food *scene* is better. Not bec I get exhaust with my noodles, but bec street food here is everywhere, on almost every block in kopitiam and from individual hawker stalls. It is easily accessible -- no need to duck into a shopping mall or a large hawker center to find it. When you walk in George Town the streets smell like food, most hours of the day. That, to me, spells a superior street food scene. For lovers of street food it doesn't get much better. You of course are free to disagree.
B) Yes, of course, as urban areas develop street food will mutate. It does not *have* to disappear. And *how* it mutates can be controlled. As I stated previously, my prob with the WSFC is that its organizers start from the premise that "the way it happened in Singapore is a model for other countries." I don't agree. (Just as I don't agree that, for all its merits, Singapore's urban development is also a model for all other Asian cities to aspire to.) And I'm unconvinced that packing the Congress with celebrities and others who aren't really down there "on the street", so to speak, is the way to introduce strong oppositional views to that stance. I'll stand by my assertion that the Congress could stand to benefit from steering away from the glitz and seeking knowledge from unknowns. (And no, I'm not referring to myself there.) We'll see what happens with Year 2.
Would pple be unaware of street food all over with the world without the Congress? I think that in this age of food blogs, that is debatable.
C) I deliberately steered away from using the word "authentic" in this post, so please don't put words in my mouth or ascribe thoughts to my brain. I've lived and traveled extensively in developing countries, and I've reported and written on heritage and conservation and the push-pull between the two and urban development.I like to think I have a pretty clear-eyed view of these issues, even when I travel (perhaps even more so when I travel). I'm not displaying a time-warpy, nostalgic love of the "old-timey" by expressing a fondness for George Town's street food culture.
That said, I understand where you're going with your third point. But I think I speak from a unique position -- I am living, right now, in city that is struggling with how to balance the "old" with "progress". I talk with people in George Town every day. I am not a nostalgic outsider focused on preserving "heritage" at the expense of "progress" for the locals. I know a dirty, decrepit old building when I see one. I also know, from experience -- having just finished renovations on a late 19th century shop house in the city -- that "old" buildings can be made liveable. And I know that "progress" for George Town's and Penang's street food culture doesn't have to look like Singapore's, Hong Kong's or Shanghai's.
When it comes to hawker food here Penang-ites are fanatically proud. No disrespect intended -- but they tell me "we don't want to be Kuala Lumpur. We don't want to be Singapore. We don't want to be Hong Kong."
What I think is arrogant is when "we" assume that others share our view of progress. Of course it is the "right" of every society to progress. But who's definition of "progress" do "we" assume they should subscribe to?