Monday, February 04, 2013

The future of Penang street hawkers?

On the way back from Georgetown, we happened across this friendly street hawker selling apong or apom, a Malaysian street snack that's similar to a filled crepe, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and in this case, filled with banana and sweet corn.

Run by a very friendly Mr. Guan (hence the name Apong Guan), he has been making apom for over 40 years, and apparently quite popular. While waiting for our order, there were already orders for around 50 pieces already in the queue, and several cars stopped by to place orders for 20 pieces! We ordered our minimum ten pieces, and watched Mr. Guan work while waiting for the order. While we waited, he was quite the entertainer, allowing us to "participate" in making our apom by having us try cooking a few pieces, and showed us an old photo, carefully wrapped in paper, of a much younger Mr. Guan, meeting one of the government ministers. He told us stories about various famous dignitaries, ordering apom from his non-descript cart, attached to a cycle, and parked in front of a schoolyard.

These street-side carts are quite common (and popular) in Penang, showing up at the same location, around the same time every day. It's quite a unique Penang tradition, as these street-side vendors are non-existent in Singapore, and nearly impossible in traffic-choked Kuala Lumpur.

After some time, I quickly noticed that most of these hawkers are quite old, especially in the case of Mr. Guan, who is probably in his 60's. These hawkers take their craft quite seriously, making each piece by hand, cooking with traditional methods, and avoiding most mechanization. In Mr. Guan's case, the only mechanization came from the gas tank heating his cooking plate, he still cut each banana by hand, and opened each can of corn by hand, mixed his apom batter by hand. It seems like a noble task, hand-making each of these snacks by traditional methods, shaded only by a tarp under the hot tropical heat.

I wonder what will happen to these vendors in the next 10 years. It's rare to find hawkers who are younger than 40, especially in the more famous stalls. Maybe this older generation don't want their children do be doing this type of difficult manual work. I do fear the loss of these old hawkers in the next 5 years... will these types of handmade snacks disappear? Will people lose the patience for waiting for these snacks? Will government regulate the street-side hawkers? Will this hawker generation retire without anybody following their footsteps?

In his case, and for all the other Penang street hawkers, I hope the tradition continues, and people realize what a unique place they have where these old food traditions are preserved.

Location: Apom Guan, opposite Sekolah Union, Jalan Burma, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.
Price: 10 pieces for RM4 (about $1.30)