Reporter Journal / Chen Weihua

Food trucks of New York offer food for thought for Chinese cities

By Chen Weihua ( Updated: 2017-12-04 04:19

Chinese cities that regard getting rid of street vendors as a step toward modernity could learn so much from New York City in its rich and vibrant food truck-and-pushcart scene.

In my hometown city of Shanghai, for example, the number of street vendors has plunged over the past two decades, as the municipal government outlawed them from many streets. As a result, it's so hard for locals to get their favorite breakfast – pie, fritters, soy milk, sticky rice rolls.

In New York, including glitzy Downtown and Midtown Manhattan, thousands of food trucks are selling delicacies from around the world, from jian bing (Chinese crepe), hot dog, falafel, tacos, sushi and waffles to steaks, burgers, juices and desserts.

The tasty and affordable foods draw large crowds working in nearby high-rise office buildings. New York City has some of the strictest regulations to ensure food safety and cleanliness.

Besides sidewalks, food trucks in New York also appear on the sites of concerts and are also hired for wedding ceremonies, birthday parties, anniversaries and reunions.

Online maps tell people how to find different kinds of food trucks and carts nearby. And regular food-truck rallies are held in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Annually, there are the Vendy Awards, the top prizes for food truck and pushcart chefs.

Ji Chen "Peter" Wang, who originally came from Kaifeng in Central China's Henan province, was among the finalists for the 2017 New York City Vendy Awards announced in September. He serves up Chinese-style barbecue on skewers on Main Street in downtown Flushing, Queens.

"What's more appetizing than a Grammy, more mouth-watering than an Emmy? Yes, it's The Vendy — symbolic of culinary supremacy among New York's 10,000 sidewalk chefs," claims the New York Daily News.

The Great Food Truck Race, a reality TV and cooking series, has produced 51 episodes in eight seasons, showing the fantastic food truck and pushcart culture in the city.

The Lonely Planet also has a section introducing food truck culture as a new way to bite into the Big Apple. Organized tours also are provided for people to taste their way through the best food trucks in Downtown and Midtown Manhattan.

Pushcart vending in New York dates to 1691, when the Dutch first settled in what was then New Amsterdam. In fact, the area near Hanover Square, not far from Wall Street, was one of those areas in the early days. Today, many food trucks and pushcarts still can be found there.

While working in New York a few years ago, I enjoyed a great lunchtime with colleagues and friends in Bryant Park, with food bought from nearby food trucks and pushcarts.

Some Chinese friends wonder why New York, often regarded as the greatest city in the world, would tolerate food trucks and pushcarts everywhere in the city, including on the sidewalks of Times Square and Fifth Avenue. Some describe the scene as messy, and some complain about the heavy smoke.

I have heard that complaint from some New Yorkers as well. But overall, most New Yorkers I talked to believe those street vendors should stay rather than be kicked out.

Many Chinese cities have learned many lessons the hard way. They tore down many old buildings in past decades in a rush to build skyscrapers before realizing they were an invaluable part of the city's history.

China boasts a civilization of 5,000 years. Their street vendors also boast a history much longer than New York City's. It would be nice to keep and revive that rich and vibrant culture.

The author is deputy editor of China Daily USA.


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