Street food, everyday life, and patterns of inequality


Dim Sum. Photo taken at street food vendor in Mong Konk.

This photo is of steamer baskets containing dim sum. Dim sum are roughly translated as little bites, and can be savoury or sweet. My favorites are Char Sui Bao, Shu Mai, and Jin Dui. Char Sui Bao are white buns filled with bar-b-que pork. Shu Mai look like a large thimble or very small basket out of some sort of yellow dough and filled with either shrimp or pork filling. I like the shrimp Shu Mai the best. Jin Dui are round sticky balls of glutenous rice filled with peanut paste or red bean paste and are sweet. They are all comfort food in both texture and taste. This is a quite conservative selection. There are many other types of Dim Sum including shrimp toast, chicken feet, tripe, fish gills, and so forth. You can buy Dim Sum all over Hong Kong: in the markets, on the street, and in restaurants.


Mong Kok, Kowloon, Hong Kong

The baskets in this photo were taken from a street stall in Mong Kok, one of the most densely populated places in the world. Streets here are full of people shopping, eating, working, and selling. Locals rub up against tourists who have come to absorb the culture and to buy copy watches, fake handbags, and DVD’s to take home to friends and family. The streets become particularly busy, taking on a carnavalesque atmosphere, at night.  What is less clear from the street scene, however, is that people also live here. DSCN1483

In the buildings that line the streets, you will find businesses on the first, second, and sometimes third storeys of the buildings, and then flats above those.  Access is usually from a narrow stairway leading up to the upper floors.  Flats are typically quite small with a kitchen area off the back, a shower and toilet space and then the living space.  The living space can be divided into multiple dwelling units; anywhere from two to more than twenty. Room dividers can be permanent building materials or in a cage form of mesh or bamboo (You can learn more about the cage houses in my post on the cost of housing in Hong Kong). While there are certainly pockets of gentrification in Mong Kok (Langham Place is one example), most of the people who live in the areas pictured above are relatively poor. 

Street food is important in Hong Kong. Not only does it add to the life and vibrancy of the city, but it is how many people eat. Because housing is inadequate, the needs of cooking are not sufficiently provided for.  There is limited storage capacity for keeping dried or canned goods.  Nearly 20% of residents in Hong Kong have less than HK$45 (less than US$6 or £4 or about Euro 4.5). This amount of money will buy cooked rice and veg and a bit of meat or a lot of egg tarts. Diverting this income to electricity for cooking, refrigeration, and air conditioning (Hong Kong is hot and cooking doesn’t help keep the temperatures down) is incomprehensible for many. As a result, people tend to shop everyday or to just eat on the street.  Without the street food vendors, many would starve. 

Street vending itself is quite a risky economic activity. Earnings are low and the stakes are high as much street vending is conducted illegally. Constructed as economically marginal, the vendors come under threat from a variety of sources. Most recently the SCMP reported that the Ombudsman has criticised the Environment and Hygeene department for not sufficiently policing the dai pai dongs (street restaurants) and called for a more stringent licensing system. The plight of street vendors is certainly one I will develop further in another post, but suffice it to say they face pressure from all sides: government regulation, economic well-being, rising food costs, and environmental hygiene.

There are efforts to increase food security in Hong Kong, though this is patchy and the charities that do this work are not particularly joined up. SOCO, a very active housing charity, for example focuses on housing generally and elderly and youth support as it relates to housing, but food security and cooking arrangements are not part of that activity.  There are also food re-distribution charities  (e.g., Feeding Hong Kong and Food Angel) that run food banks, but this is only sufficient if your kitchen arrangement accommodates storage and your housing is cool enough. There is also some concern that these charities, rather than working together are duplicating services in some areas while not serving other areas (see this article in the SCMP). What may seem to a tourist like the regular order of everyday life has deep and complex connections to social justice and cultural politics.


Hong Wrong has an interesting and informative post on what food HK$45 can buy you and also includes video and figures on Hong Kong poverty.

The SCMP article I referred to above concerning the regulation of dai pai dongs can be found here.

For a list of Dim Sum and a helpful guide for interpreting the menu see this post on Be warned, it tends to focus just on those items that are more familiar to western eaters.

This post is also written in response to wordpress’s weekly photo challenge, which is focused on pattern. You can find the challenge here.

How to reference this post

Blake, M (2013) Street food, everyday life, and patterns of inequality. 11 May 2013 (Accessed: insert date accessed here)

Other Posts responding to the photo challenge:

18 thoughts on “Street food, everyday life, and patterns of inequality

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  6. Thank you for your contribution to the challenge and to my education. I was not aware of the plight of the food vendors on the streets not the problem of cooking indoors for many residents of Hong Kong.

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  14. I have never been to Hong Kong, but everywhere I travelled in South East Asia, the street food was amazing. It was always excellent quality, fresh, with amazing flavours. I never once got sick eating from a street food stall, but I did get sick a few times from restaurants. I also discovered plenty of amazing food that I had never heard of or tried anywhere else, and it usually only cost me a dollar or so. Great post!

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