Illustration: Lu Ting/GT
Tourists in Shanghai sometimes expect a lively street food scene to rival that of Taipei, Hanoi or Kuala Lumpur. But the reality in Shanghai is that good street food is often hard to find, in part due to the city's all-too-rapid urbanization and the lack of a mechanism that supports the healthy development of street food markets.
The recent shutdown of the Pengpu Road night market, which first sprung up around a decade ago near Linfen Road and Wenxi Road in Zhabei district, is a case in point. The local authorities forced the market to close after eight buses changed their routes to avoid the stalls and eaters that blocked the road. Both the bus company and local residents had been pressuring the vendors to leave, until the local authorities eventually stepped in.
The closing of the night market meant a loss to many. For local foodies and tourists, there would be one less spot in Shanghai where they could find interesting, cheap and tasty late night snacks. For the street vendors, who were mostly low-income migrants from other provinces struggling to make a living in Shanghai, they were stripped of an important source of income. And the other businesses in the area also suffered collateral losses since the shutdown of the market means less foot traffic for the entire area. Nearby shops and restaurants have all reported a drop in customers, according to local media.
However, I wouldn't argue that the Pengpu night market should have remained as it was. As far as the law is concerned, the bus company and the residents were right to protest because all street food vendors in Shanghai, technically speaking, are operating illegally due to the lack of a permit system.
Therefore, instead of driving the market out, a more constructive way for the government to handle the matter would be to legalize nighttime street food stalls and introduce a permit system that will contribute to a more vibrant street food scene, which is vital to a city's food culture.
This is what happens in Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore, cities celebrated for their delicious - and hygienic - street food. In Taiwan, each market is overseen by a committee consisting of the street vendors themselves who are in charge of management and hygiene of the market. The committee also invests in necessary infrastructure, such as oil cleaners and pipelines, and all the street food vendors in the market will share the cost. This is far more meaningful spending for vendors trying to make an honest living than paying fines levied by urban management officers.
In fact, Shanghai is already experimenting with a permit system, albeit only among breakfast vendors. In 2012, the city enacted a temporary regulation on street vendors. Each district and town in Shanghai has designated areas for breakfast vendors. Each vendor has to register with the local authorities, who issue them a permit card specifying the time and location they're allowed to sell breakfast, as well as a photo of the vendor. In 2012, 5,700 such permits were issued.
As night street food has a wider variety and more oil involved, the local government has not extended the same policy to night vendors, but the city's loss of the beloved Pengpu market is a reminder that it might be time to do so.