How the Pandemic Has Changed Street Food in Asia

Hard choices have been made in a devastating tourist downturn

We’re dedicating our September features to food and drink. One of our favorite parts of travel is the joy of trying a new cocktail, snagging a reservation at a great restaurant, or supporting a local wine region. Now, to celebrate the flavors that teach us about the world, we put together a collection of tasty features, including chefs’ top tips for eating well on the roadhow to choose an ethical food tour, the wonders of ancient indigenous cooking traditions, and a chat with Hollywood taco impresario Danny Trejo.

As worldwide tourism flatlined in the months post-pandemic, hawkers in Asia’s top street food cities have had to contend with the end of an era.

Near-zero foot traffic in formerly crowded tourist venues, a generational inability to adjust to new technology, and the high percentages demanded by online delivery platforms have shut down many venerable street food vendors, leaving the rest hanging by a thread.

The pandemic has not killed off street food yet—but by all accounts, street food and its hawkers are on the ropes, with the raging pandemic offering little hope for help.

Shock to the System

According to the World Tourism Organization, 2020 saw an 80 percent plunge in international tourist numbers, with tourism-dependent Asian countries being hit hardest of them all.

As of May 2021, Thailand only accepted some 34,000 tourist arrivals, compared with over 39 million in 2019. Before the pandemic, tourism accounted for 11 percent of Thai GDP; the sudden lack of tourist revenue has caused a massive balance of payments shock to the Thai economy.

Even the most travel-friendly places before the pandemic—Hong Kong, Singapore, and Indonesia among them—have shut down their borders to tourists, leaving the street food sector in crisis as their respective governments struggle to contain the pandemic’s economic effects.

Street food hawkers have long relied on a simple, low-overhead model that depended on high customer turnover—resulting in the sector’s failure once the tourist trade suddenly dried up.

“[Low tourist traffic] naturally has a big impact because the hawkers rely on their daily returns,” said K. F. Seetoh, Singapore food expert and owner of Makansutra. “What they make today is good only for tomorrow because the margins are so low. Which is why they are able to sell food cheaply.”

The simplicity of the street food business model has not left hawkers with a lot of room to pivot post-COVID. “A lot of hawkers have fallen because they do not know how to manage,” Seetoh explained. “Hawkers just cook and sell. They don't know the art of cost control [or managing] food wastage.”

Barricaded hawker center in Singapore
Barricaded hawker center in Singapore.

Jnzl's Photos (CC BY 2.0)

“Double Whammy”

Easy solutions are hard to come by. For starters, the high median age of street food hawkers (in Singapore, it’s 60) and oppressive markups for delivery services have made any tech-based intervention difficult, if not impossible—what Seetoh calls a “double whammy.”

“The overwhelming majority of the hawkers are not savvy [enough] to go online delivery,” said Seetoh. “One: They're very old; they fear the online digital space. Two: Online delivery companies like Grab and Foodpanda take 30 percent of your food [cost],” Seetoh says. “Every hawker makes no more than 12 percent profit. So common sense would tell you—how can they afford to give 30 percent when the profit is only 12 percent?”

These two factors have cropped up repeatedly throughout the region, mowing down hawkers in vast swathes. Even Singapore's UNESCO-recognized hawker scene has not been spared, Seetoh said. “Hundreds of hawkers have closed during COVID. And the rest are just teetering—if things don't return to normal, they may just fall like flies.”

From Thriving to Struggling

Over in Penang, Malaysia, food tour guide and Simply Enak co-founder Mark Ng said the decline of street food has “really accelerated,” to the point that major street food landmarks are being wiped off the map.

“Look at the famous [Air Itam] Asam laksa where Anthony Bourdain went to eat,” Ng told TripSavvy. “It's now shut for good—not only because of the pandemic but family issues. That icon's gone now.”

The absence of international tourists has turned Penang’s Georgetown into a backwater. Vaccine supply issues, shortened opening hours, and bans on dine-in operations have hollowed out Penang’s formerly thriving street food scene, where not even local patronage can help hawkers earn a living.

At their age, the surviving street food hawkers have very few other options. “I personally do not know of anyone that has stopped and did something else,” Ng said. “[They’re] 60 years old—who's gonna hire them? It's either they're chilling out, or they are still out there because they can't afford not to work.”

Change or Die

In the Thai capital of Bangkok, the recent closure of the Ratchada Train Night Market was only the most visible sign of the slow death being inflicted on the Thai street food scene. Food and culture journalist Vincent Vichit-Vadakan has seen firsthand the hard choices that many street food vendors have made.

“There was a woman who's like, ‘My business is 20 percent of what it used to be, but I have to stay open for the neighborhood, and it's better than doing nothing,'” Vichit-Vadakan recalled. “Meanwhile, there's this other lady, a pad Thai lady, who was like, ‘We're doing everything we can, so we're on every platform. If that's the wave of the future, then that's what we do to survive.’”

There are very few outright success stories in street food these days, whether in Bangkok or elsewhere. Both Seetoh and Ng note that the hawkers in Singapore and Malaysia’s residential areas are mostly unaffected by the downturn in office or tourist foot traffic.

For his part, Vichit-Vadakan believes that vendors who have found a niche—whether “through local delivery companies, or because they've tapped into some local market, or they’ve gone on to social media”—have found a foothold for now. “Those people have sort of turned a corner, like ‘This is the situation. This is what we have to do,’” Vichit-Vadakan explained. “And there are people who have just disappeared.”

Food delivery driver in Bangkok, Thailand
Food delivery driver in Bangkok, Thailand.

 Lauren DeCicca / Stringer / Getty Images

Private and Public Support for Street Food

Supporting street food hawkers ranks far down on local governments’ list of COVID-era priorities. Even Singapore’s famously technocratic government has, to Seetoh’s mind, failed to help.

“This government is very strong in doing IT, AI, sustainability, marine engineering, et cetera,” Seetoh explained. “But when it comes to soft culture, their weak point is they just throw money at the problem.” For example, rental waivers initially only applied to government-owned hawker centers, and the government-funded uptake of online delivery apps despite hawkers’ reluctance to use them.

Thailand, on the other hand, lacks a coherent policy on street food altogether. “This is the same government that, before COVID, was actively seeking to ban street food carts,” Vichit-Vadakan said. “I'm not saying that the lack of public assistance for street vendors is a deliberate part of the same policy, but it says a lot about how street food is not a priority.”

The perceived insufficiency of government support has encouraged the private sector to step in with various approaches.

From using social media to promote struggling but worthy hawkers (Singapore’s Where to Dapao and Help our Hawkers) to building community-based delivery networks (Locall Thailand), local street food fans have done their utmost to support their favorite street food hawkers in their darkest hour. But for many hawkers, that may only be postponing the inevitable.

Street Food After the Pandemic

In the short term, Vichit-Vadakan thinks that many hawkers will bite the online delivery bullet—and raise prices to match. “A lot of these street food and shophouse places were hesitant to go on [Grab] because of the huge commissions. [They think] nobody's going to buy my 50-baht bowl of noodles for 70 baht.

“Now, everybody’s on Grab and Foodpanda; they're just charging 70 baht. And that's just the way it is. They're probably selling fewer bowls of noodles and som tam. But at least it's manageable.”

Consequently, the post-COVID street food landscape may favor more technologically agile hawkers looking towards more socially shareable food experiences. This may come at the expense of more traditional hawkers selling heritage recipes—the guys who can make a mean char kway teow the way their grandfathers taught them but struggle at promoting their food on Facebook by themselves.

Singapore hawkers are already shifting towards online concepts as well—Seetoh notes that some of his contacts have created online-only cloud kitchens, among other things. “But here's the thing: Post-COVID, these concepts will not last,” Seetoh said. “Because people go out—hawker centers are designed for you to go there."

While declaring that “hawkers will survive,” Seetoh acknowledged the situation is too fluid for a clear prediction. Until COVID subsides and the tourist trade comes roaring back, nothing is sure: “I don't know what the change is going to be.”