Last week, in a bid to show a strong commitment to nurturing its version of street food business, Singapore launched a months-long "Our SG Hawker Culture" exhibition at its bustling Tiong Bahru Market.
I browsed through the National Heritage Board's website with amazement. The effort shows how the island nation takes pride in this new culture. The Singaporean government encourages its people to support the nomination of the culture for Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage. As of yesterday, almost 40,000 people signed up in the government-organised petition (www.oursgheritage.sg).
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist, Bangkok Post.
"Our SG Hawker Culture" is a travelling exhibition. It will rotate in 13 locations, including a library and a museum, before wrapping up at the end of January. The launch location, Tiong Bahru Market, is well chosen. One of three must-visit hawker centres recommended by the Singapore Tourism Board, the Tiong Bahru Market was established in 1951. It was rebuilt in 1993 and now stands in one of Singapore's hippest spots. It is still going strong with a large number of street hawkers serving the rapidly growing community.
The nomination of hawker culture as a piece of Unesco intangible culture in August however is making Singapore's neighbours uneasy. Some Malaysians have started to argue that they have a stronger hawker culture. In Thailand, many deride Singapore's cultural strategy. Isn't that a loser's mentality?
Indeed, Thais must be wondering why a city that has been voted the world's best for street food could have missed its chance to make the nomination. But this may be a stretch as City Hall remains clueless when it comes to things like "vision" and policy. News reports frequently show the authorities gleefully chasing hawkers one day and then blowing them "make-up kisses" the next, when foreign media give them a positive review. City officials still can't decide which ones are a pest, making Bangkok look uglier, and which ones add "colour" to the Big Mango.
As the authorities struggle to identify all of the many food vendors, 7-Eleven is making another big step into this market with its new "freshly cooked food to order" service. The around-the-clock service debuted over the weekend at a branch in Din Daeng district.
The menu includes khao kai jiao rice topped with a Thai-style omelette, khao laab (northeastern-style salad with rice), stir-fried vegetables in a gravy-like sauce, or BBQ meat with rice. The prices start from 35 baht. There are iced and hot drinks. A seating area has also been provided.
Yet netizens have bombarded social media with their concerns. Some worry the new food business could expand and unilaterally wipe out the struggling food vendors. Again, the authorities seem clueless, as they have dubbed this "street food".
The authorities may ask, why the backlash? Food from 7-Eleven can lift quality of life of local people (this is hard to say with a straight face). Can't you see the cheap prices? As they have a refrigerator running 24 hours a day, what could be better for "fresh" raw materials?
What do you mean "unfair competition", they may growl? The negative impact 7-Eleven is having on mom and pop stores nationwide is just an illusion, they would have us believe.
Why do you need street food vendors when you have 7-Eleven stores serving you made-to-order food that is freshly cooked around the clock? Don't you see those freezers?
If everyone agreed with City Hall on this, city officials would be thrilled. First, they wouldn't need to find places to relocate the vendors and street food markets to (what a relief) while the thriving business could boost GDP (how many hawkers do you think pay all their taxes?).
Moreover, people can drop by any time they are hungry (oops, sorry -- that's the motto of the Japanese-owned, US convenience store chain).
And where else in Thailand can you find such a one-stop service? You can now eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at 7-Eleven, send your laundry off to be cleaned, pay your utilities and airfares over the counter, and even photocopy your kids' homework. Not just a few hours a day -- but 24 hours a day! What's not to love?
And it doesn't end there. The chain is now awaiting approval to serve as a banking agent and channel to distribute medicine.
Even though the state does not allow 7-Eleven to sell beer on tap, wine, bottled beers and spirits are always lurking behind the counter or in the fridges.
There were over 10,000 7-Eleven outlets in Thailand in February, all operated by CP All, which expects the number to grow 30% in the next year or so.
Maybe in a few years the government will ask Unesco to recognise our "7-Eleven Culture" as part of the world's "intangible cultural heritage" reflecting our 24/7 lifestyle.