Is Penang’s Street Food Fading Away?

loading Siam Road char koay teow's Tan Chooi Hong.

When the beloved Siam Road char koay teow “uncle” – as Tan Chooi Hong is fondly known – was rumoured to have retired last June, many Penangites were devastated.

For decades, Uncle Tan’s dish had captivated the taste buds of many a customer. It even made its way onto the world map in 2017 when it was ranked 14th in the Top 50 World Street Food Masters listed by the World Street Food Congress.

Fortunately, the rumours that Uncle Tan was throwing in the towel were dispelled in July. Together with his son, he has now opened their own kopitiam selling char koay teow near the place where their stall used to be.

To be sure, Uncle Tan is approaching his 80s – almost 20 years over the national retirement age. His son, 53, will take over when he finally does retire, but how much longer can he continue his father’s legacy beyond that – and who will continue after him?

Back-breaking Work

All across Penang, hawkers face the same dilemma as Uncle Tan – they are ageing and they have no young blood to succeed them.

Porridge shop on Lebuh Kimberley.

On Gurney Drive, there is a Malay hawker who has been hawking since he was 19 years old. Together with his father, they would move from road side to road side, selling their homemade satay. Today, he is 49, and together with his wife, they continue to ply their trade at the Gurney Drive hawker centre. However, their son, who is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree, does not want to take over the family business, and it is likely that his family’s satay recipe will be lost in time.

This is part of an alarming trend where local youths are unwilling to pursue hawking as a profession. Since 2014, Penang’s hawking industry has been experiencing a decline; Singapore, on the other hand, is seeing its numbers steadily rise (Figure 1).

Traditionally, food hawking was pursued by people from a lower socio-economic stratum. It was one of the few choices they felt they had, with their limited schooling.

While food hawking may be an integral part of Penang’s heritage, hawkers look at it from a very different perspective. To them, it is a tough job – they work long hours; many of them operate six days a week and do at least seven hours each day, not inclusive of preparation and cleaning time done outside their standard business hours. Their work is laborious and they have to endure strong heat from the wok under less-than-pleasant environments.

Although hawking is arguably a very lucrative business, with many food hawkers earning a profit well above Penang’s median household income, most do not want their children to follow in their footsteps and they would rather that the kids pursue higher education to land a less-physically arduous job.

Centuries of cultural assimilation and layers of culinary innovation by traders and settlers from around the globe have come to define the taste of Penang food. Its preservation could be sought in two ways: either by ensuring the Penang taste stays as it is; or by preserving the spirit of culinary innovation that resulted in the Penang food we know today.

Inexpensiveness is a strong trait of Penang street food. There have been numerous successful upscaling of hawker stalls into restaurants, but while these maintain taste and authenticity, their prices have increased significantly to accommodate rent and other costs. Some may argue that the price hikes are necessary to improve the socio-economic status of hawkers, while others argue that it goes against the spirit of inexpensive Penang food.

With the industry on the wane, Penang needs to attract new talent, but doing so through artificial means might impact the taste and price of the food on offer. With some intervention, the decline can be reversed. Singapore, for example has shown that government programmes can rekindle the food hawking industry.1

Improvements to the working environment of food hawkers can attract new entrants into the industry and elevate the status of the profession. Some initiatives that can be undertaken include introducing a Penang culinary arts programme, enforcing higher premise standards in hawker centres, encouraging food hawkers to save in the national retirement scheme, providing upscale assistance to food hawkers, and establishing an entrepreneurship incubator for aspiring food hawkers.

Ultimately, the act of preservation is an act of balancing. It is highly unlikely that we can fully preserve Penang’s food hawking heritage. As time goes by, some aspects of food hawking will live on, while other aspects will inevitably fade away.

While food hawking may be an integral part of Penang’s heritage, hawkers look at it from a very different perspective. To them, it is a tough job – they work long hours; many of them operate six days a week and do at least seven hours each day, not inclusive of preparation and cleaning time done outside their standard business hours.

Famous Penang street food: (Top) Penang Road cendol and (bottom) Air Itam laksa.

Nicholas Chong is a board game enthusiast, novice magician, martial arts practitioner, and laksa fanatic. He claims to know all the best laksa spots in Penang.
1www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-22506475.



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