Key Points of SEA Junction Panel Discussion on 7 July by Stephanie Michelle*
Bangkok is famously known among tourists for its street food. Yet in an attempt to clear some tourist-congested areas, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has pursued a campaign to remove thousands of street vendors since 2014. Although it has evicted vendors of various goods, the past year has shown a big focus on food among consumers. The panel session organized at SEA Junction on 7 July as part of a new event series entitled “Beyond Food” poses the questions of the financial impacts of street food’s disappearance for both sellers and consumers. The speakers, series initiator and expert Jorge Carrillo-Rodrigez and Narumol Nirathron, Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Administration, Thammasat University, presented their research on this issue (see http://seajunction.org/event/what-if-street-food-disappears-2/ ). The complete event can be seen at our fb page ( https://www.facebook.com/470374673153248/videos/816934575163921/ ) here only few key points:
What are some of the arguments for and against the ban?
The recent focus on evicting food vendors may be due a couple of misconceptions. Firstly, that street food is meant for tourists. Secondly, food is considered separate from the vendors, as if it is just someone selling food. However, street food is consumed by a majority of Thai of all classes. Moreover, it is related to urban space in regards to food security, environment, and livelihood. Food vendors are a key component of their space and fulfill an economic and cultural function. The ban of street food therefore puts urban food security, livelihoods and socio-cultural interaction at risk.
Additional arguments include an assumption that vendors are no longer poor as they are making savings from the profits of their sales, while this does not apply to all. There is also the intention to restrict vendors who are not registered to be living in Bangkok and therefore should not be selling in Bangkok.
How important is street food for consumers?
Consumer expenses will increase in the absence of street food. All income groups consume street food. The average consumer purchases around 10 meals per week from street food vendors. Lower income groups spend less than higher income, but it may be possible that they purchase fewer meals. A recent research found price differences between street food and formal food in various locations in Bangkok as follows:
- Wongwianyai 10฿ difference
- Bangkapi 13฿ difference (Street food seems to be considered cheaper than in other areas)
- Saphan Taksin 2฿ difference (Shop houses seem to be owners of the street food stalls and often hire someone to sell the food)
- Silom 9฿ difference
As a result, if there was no street food, the average consumer will need to spend 357 ฿ more per month to buy the same number of meals from non-street outlets. 357฿
What if street food really disappears?
For the sellers, it would have a serious impact on their livelihoods, as contrary to stereotyping many of them earn only basic incomes and would not be able to affort more expensive options.
We can also expect a shift in gender dynamics in the household. Many housing units do not include a kitchen because developers already perceive the easy convenience of street food or ordering meals. Prepared street food also saves time on the domestic work. If street food were to disappear, women may need to dedicate more time to shopping. Additionally, there may be a concerning shift of nutritious foods coming into houses for boys versus girls.
The absence of street food does not necessarily guarantee unobstructed walkways. It allows for an expansion of convenience stores to make up for the urban food security. Its promotional events and shophouses are likely to take advantage of the clear walkways.
Is the problem with vendors or structure?
These two issues need to be separated. Vendors are often pushed to the sidewalks due to poor design of the streets. Urban structure needs to be raised as an issue in city planning since private developers build malls and hotels often build to the very edge of the street.
Venders are registered with their district. They are restricted from selling on public land, the sidewalks. But they are restricted from selling outside their district. Enforcement of the eviction laws are also inconsistent. It was temporary stopped as a current investigation is pursued. But street vendors in the “soi” are often protected by the community and return at convenient times.
The matter of street food is not a black-or-white issue. The street mechanisms can adjust with the economics. But it is a question of space. Will they be moved to private land? There are recommendations of designs for mixed-spaces, but the solutions have yet to be explored. It is necessary to explore the urban spaces which includes street food, and those who have the rights to those spaces.
How space and food presence is regulated will be the topic of the next session in SEA Junction Series “Beyond Street Food” on 8 September at 5PM at SEA Junction
Stephanie Michelle is a SEA Junction intern. She is an educator in Thai Civic and History with a BA in International Studies focusing on Asia and a MA in International Relations. Her passions are reading culture and international development