Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Yet the Thai government has long been on a mission to “clean up” the streets and “return the pavements to the pedestrians.”
For a moment, it seemed like Bangkok was going to lose the very street food culture that’s defined the city for decades. Local newspaper The Nation reported last Tuesday that the city was planning to ban food stalls in all 50 of its districts as part of an effort to “clean up” the streets and “return the pavements to the pedestrians.” All would disappear by end of this year—the sweet and sticky aroma of coconut (a staple Thai ingredient), the sizzle of noodles hitting the wok as vendors fire up an order of pad thai, and the chaotic charm that draws some 20 to 30 million international tourists to the city each year.
After a public outcry, garnering media attention across the globe, Thailand’s chief of tourism was quick to clarify. Vendors wouldn’t be totally barred from the streets, Uthasak Supasorn, the head of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, told Agence France-Presse. “Bangkok has some of the best street food in the world, [and] you cannot take it away from the people of the world,” he said. Instead, Bangkok Metropolitan Authority will set more regulations to improve food safety and waste management while enforcing measures to unclog sidewalks from “obstructions” like food carts, chairs, and umbrellas. Already, according to AFP, almost two-thirds of the city’s 30,000 street vendors have been removed or relocated to open up space.
“These are real planning problems for cities,” says Krishnendu Ray, a food studies professor at New York University who’s currently researching the legal and cultural aspects of the global street food scene. “They often emerge from dealing with overcrowding in cities [as a result of] population growth and a boom in car ownership—which is putting a squeeze on the street.”
Yet food hawkers aren’t the enemies of public space, at least not according to a 2015 survey on the walkability of Bangkok. Most of the 1,000-plus respondents said bulky advertisements, construction materials, and broken sidewalks were the major obstacles to walking.
Regardless, critics say the crackdown on Bangkok’s street vendors is an attempt to turn the city’s sidewalks into ones resembling Singapore’s pristine stretches (starting in the 1970s, the island nation relocated hawkers to more than 100 food centers).
These decisions are the result of a strategy called traditional developmentalism. “That’s the idea that street vending is backwards and disorganized, and a phase that should be transcended by grocery stores and indoor markets and restaurants,” Ray says. “In Bangkok, vendors tend to be rural-to-urban migrants, who are seen as poor and not knowing city etiquette. So they need to be disciplined about trash disposal and how to use city spaces.” The belief is further mixed with the notion that sidewalks are “for things to flow through, not stop at,” he adds.
In fact, Thailand’s efforts go as far back as the 1970s—even as its tourism department advertised its foodie culture to the world. And it’s mirrored in many major U.S. cities, too. Food hawkers in Los Angeles, for example, have long been embroiled in a battle with the city government over their legality, and in New York, the long process to obtain a permit means vendors risk hefty fines and even arrest.
And city planners in Thailand aren’t the only ones who have looked to the Singaporean model. (Hong Kong, for example, has followed it as well, moving dai pai dongs, or open-air food stalls, indoors into food centers.) The hawker center strategy may be harder to pull off in Bangkok, Ray says. For one thing, the public’s affinity for the culture is what Ray calls a cross-class dynamic—lower-class street vendors are also feeding the middle class, who will almost certainly put pressure on the government when that cheap convenience is taken away.
Plus, according to Ray, an estimated 2 percent the population in a city like Bangkok is involved in hawking. With some 8 million people in Bangkok, that means there could be as many as 160,000 street vendors. “It's very difficult to completely marginalize such a large urban population,” he says. “Can you provide an alternative to them, or are you going to drive poor people deeper into the shadows? What is the intermediate step in moving from, say, 500,000 street vendors to none at all?”
Then there’s the question of Bangkok’s frenzied charm, which grew organically out of the need to give lower-income families a source of livelihood and to get people fed. That charm disappears, though, if the government takes too much control of the space, dictating which stalls should open where and what kind of stalls should populate an area. "If so much attention is paid to curation and not enough to the livelihood and lives or poor people, it becomes kind of a sanitized space that I find mostly uninteresting,” Ray says. “And then we will develop a kind of nostalgia about street life.”