HONG KONG — For the 23rd year running, Hong Kong is, in the opinion of the conservative Heritage Foundation, the freest economy in the world. With low taxes, an efficient government and private businesses running the city buses and its spotless subways, this place is a libertarian dream come true.
So the story goes.
Many people who live in Hong Kong beg to differ. This has long been a city of tycoons, with a few families holding sway over the supermarkets, drugstores and real estate market, limiting competition and keeping prices high. And in the past few weeks, four words have further shaken the story line that this former British colony is a free-market nirvana.
"Food Truck Pilot Scheme."
Hong Kong, a culinary paradise that is arguably the dim sum capital of the world, was, until this month, sorely lacking in something that other financial capitals, like New York and London, have in spades: food trucks.
Something had to be done to close the yawning food truck gap.
Enter the Hong Kong government, keen to draw in more tourists.
After more than a year of preparation, and even cook-offs to pick the lucky few, the food trucks are finally here. Eight for a city of 7.2 million. There are plans for eight more.
The trucks are sights to behold. Gleaming and new, they are brightly and imaginatively painted, with names like Ma Ma's Dumplings and Mein by Maureen. One is emblazoned with a panda that bears a striking resemblance to Po of Kung Fu Panda fame.
And the food is fabulous. The Shanghai barbecue pork bun from the Book Brothers truck melts in your mouth. The "five colored dumplings" at Ma Ma's are delicious — an authentic taste of northern China.
Just one ingredient seems to be missing: customers.
Food trucks in most cities are mobile. They can move from place to place. They are, after all, trucks. In New York, one might hit the lunch crowd in Midtown, then head uptown to Columbia University to catch hungry students in late afternoon.
In Hong Kong, the government agency that devised the Food Truck Pilot Scheme had a new, bold and innovative idea: stationary food trucks that don't park on the street. A spokesman for the city's Tourism Commission explained why in an email:
"Since the urban area of Hong Kong is already saturated with traffic, it would not be desirable from the traffic management and road safety angles to allow food trucks to park and operate on public roads. Moreover, as many locations in Hong Kong have already got a number of food establishments, it would thus be desirable to introduce food trucks away from those areas."
It's all explained in a raft of guidelines. There are seven annexes in all, including licensing requirements (Annex D), special government loan programs (Annex B) and fixed venues (Annex F).
Then there is Annex C — "Mandatory Requirements for a Food Truck" — that lists in painstaking detail what each truck must have. Some examples: The kitchen floor space must be at least 65 square feet. Each truck must have a potable water tank with a capacity of about 32 gallons, and a wastewater tank at least 11/2 times that size. The sink must be at least a foot and a half in length. And so on.
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To meet all of those regulations, Hong Kong food trucks must be custom vehicles, bearing little resemblance to the decades-old trucks that congregate near the National Mall in Washington, the capital of a country that has only the 17th freest economy in the world.
All these rules and regulations have Liu Chun-ho, the owner of Ma Ma's Dumpling, very worried. To meet the stringent requirements, he paid about $129,000 for his new Isuzu truck.
On a sunny afternoon recently, his truck was attracting a trickle of customers in a square near the Wong Tai Sin Temple, one of eight places where food trucks can operate, with the venue maximum set at two food trucks (see maps in Annex G). The trucks must pay a monthly service fee to park. At Wong Tai Sin, it is about $2,200 a month or 15 percent of the gross revenue, whichever is higher (Annex E).
Liu illustrates his challenge in units of dumplings. He needs to sell 200 bowls a day, at a little more than $5 each, just to cover his fixed costs, he said. He is barely making that now and fears business will plummet once summer comes with the monsoon rains and pounding semitropical sun that will keep customers away from the treeless, concrete square.
"The government needs to loosen up," said Liu, 43. He has been to Thailand and Japan, and in those places, "you can set up shop anywhere, on the roads, on the streets," he said.
The result is that small-business entrepreneurs, the mainstays of food trucks in other countries, find it forbidding to enter the market in Hong Kong.