COVID attacks Culture: protecting our hawkers and street vendors in times of crisis

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Efforts by YMCA Wok the Talk & BridgeBurma are essential not just to help street hawkers maintain their livelihoods, but also in protecting an integral part of our culinary culture through this period of crisis.

Street Food stall in Bangkok, Thailand (Source: Unsplash)

There is perhaps nothing that can replace the richness of history and diversity embodied within Southeast Asian cuisine. Food in Southeast Asia is influenced by a mix of Sinicization, Indianization and European colonisation, all of which combined in different ways to produce the dizzying range of cuisine across the region. Street food holds a particularly treasured spot in this culinary culture: across the entire region, street food is not only tightly knit into the daily life of Southeast Asians, but street hawkers such as Thailand’s Jay Fai and Singapore’s Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken have also received Michelin stars typically reserved for high-end restaurants.

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the F&B industry, and the industry faces continued uncertainty even as countries ease lockdown measures. It goes without saying that street hawkers are particularly affected, given that most of them belong to the informal economy and led a hand-to-mouth existence even before the onset of the pandemic. Furthermore, lockdown restrictions have forced many F&B businesses to turn to online platforms in order to continue their businesses, but street hawkers do not always have the means or expertise to establish a significant online presence.

Among the list of charities Regional Relief has identified, BridgeBurma and YMCA Wok the Talk both aim to help this community. BridgeBurma has partnered with Doh Eain, a multi heritage restoration social enterprise that has interviewed vendors and identified those in need of support in Myanmar. Every Friday, Doh Eain disburses PPE and two days’ worth of minimum wage to each vendor in different townships, and funds raised by BridgeBurma are sent to Doh Eain every time 2,000,000MMK (US$1425) is raised.

Doh Eain’s Data Collection Approach

In Singapore, YMCA Wok the Talk aims to purchase packed meals from hawkers before delivering them to vulnerable communities, thus helping hawkers and private hire drivers to maintain their livelihoods while looking after seniors, persons with special needs, less-privileged youth and migrant workers at the same time.

Street food vendor in Bangkok, Thailand on April 17, 2020, after the outbreak of the pandemic. Source: AFP

It wasn’t too long ago that Southeast Asian countries were locked into a battle over street food, after Singapore submitted a bid for hawker culture to be recognised as UNESCO cultural heritage. But in this current state of crisis, it is perhaps time for us to put aside such conflicts and instead unite behind our shared passion for street food. It’s time to put our money where our mouth is and support the people whose food so many of us grew up on and still live by on a daily basis, so that those who are providing it can continue to stay afloat, and the rest of us can still come to enjoy the street food that we treasure once this crisis has come to pass.