This page about street food has taken the longest to write. It became a messy page, I daresay a mean page. I wrote this bit about people who claim to love street food yet splutter at the faintest whisper of chilli from tacos at strained food trucks but still want to cry “inauthentic!” at this and that, like an incurable twitch. The term “insufferable dud” may have slipped into the draft. It felt bad to write, I was frustrated. It was an angry slop of a thinkpiece with a murky trajectory. Here is my revision.
The fact is, talking about street food is a dangerous game. People have built entire careers on it, to varying degrees of success. And why not? Street food provides incredible insight to how people really live in the country you happen to be visiting, literally an open book to entire populations. Living, breathing history. Delicious history. It’s spectacular. But it isn’t a conquest.
I despise the word “unassuming” in food writing. It suggests restraint and meekness simply because the subject of the piece is not part of the writer/reader’s everyday. This attitude is the core of my frustration and as an inexperienced writer (with grandparents hailing from the village) it’s difficult to explain, aside from rolling my eyes.
To some, eating at a restaurant without an expensive fit-out is an act to both revel in and marvel at. Food is described as honest and unpretentious for simply existing; the other, a.k.a. a humble lifestyle of millions, is heightened to quench an appetite for something novel. It isn’t quaint! It’s simply people getting by, most likely after years of a burdensome history.
I am not from Hong Kong, but I understand what it’s like to witness pleb food turn trophy – my bold and resolute ancestors ate a shitload of beans and rice and lentils because it was all they could afford for nourishment. The prestige of turning to the street for some unassuming nom noms belies the fact that majority of street food, anywhere in the world, has evolved from a hard place. Reporting on such things from an inappropriate gaze is precarious.
So: these handful of photos aren’t breaking news. There are no grand discoveries, I’m not unfurling exotic mysteries and I want to be sensitive. I’m wary of exhibiting class tourism too – egg waffles, fish balls, pig intestine, offal – all these things pictured in steamy bain-maries did not trickle down from the social elite.
I hope the following few pages offer a brief account of part of Sham Shui Po rather than mirroring the strange attitudes that sometimes seep into food writing: weird bragging, treating food as trend and history as inconsequential.