As a seemingly never-ending line of office workers patiently wait to be served lunch at a makeshift food stall in Malaysia’s capital, owner Masidah Jais takes a well-earned break.
With the help of her five children, the 58-year-old street-food vendor, whose most popular item is a spicy fish dish, cooks and serves up tasty meals to hundreds of hungry workers each day at one of Kuala Lumpur’s designated hawker sites.
“With no license, we would be afraid to have a stand – it would be very difficult,” said Jais, whose stall is among a handful that have permits to set up on a wide pavement surrounded by shiny skyscrapers and high-end restaurants.
“With a license, we’re happy,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Jais, who has sold street food for more than 20 years, is part of a vibrant informal economy in Asia, with a long cultural and economic tradition, that is under threat as urban areas grow and seek to modernise.
With Asian towns and cities striving to become more international and attract investment, street vendors and hawkers are viewed increasingly as a hindrance to progress.
They are often seen as usurpers of the right to public spaces claimed by formal businesses, residents and pedestrians, said Ajay Suri, a Delhi-based advisor at Cities Alliance, a global partnership for urban poverty reduction.
And in urban areas with traffic congestion, vendors are criticized for creeping out into the road or blocking pavements, said Bill Vorley, a senior associate with the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
Informal vendors are seen as “tax-avoiding, not playing by the rules, unhygienic”, he added.
Few Asian cities are managing hawkers well, researchers said. Vendors have been cleared from parts of Bangkok, Jakarta, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Mumbai over the last year.
During evictions, their equipment is often confiscated or destroyed. In some cases, they are prosecuted and left facing ruin.
“We’ve seen crackdowns in a lot of the bigger cities that have global city aspirations,” said Sarah Orleans Reed, Bangkok coordinator at WIEGO, a global non-profit that helps informal workers.
“It’s seen as a ‘Singaporisation’ of these cities, because the goal is to have empty sidewalks,” she added.
Besides fresh food, Asia’s street vendors sell a variety of items including cigarettes, SIM cards for mobile phones, electronics, craft goods, toys and clothes.
Hawkers use vans, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles, carts, tables and chairs, or even a simple piece of cardboard laid out on pavements to transport and sell their wares. Favored locations are any public area popular with pedestrians.
Some do pay fees to local authorities for licenses to operate in designated zones. But the vast majority do not, and trade illegally with few protections.
Falling between the cracks of regulation, they are often harassed and targeted for bribes by criminals or corrupt officials and police, while facing the constant threat of eviction and prosecution, urban experts said.
“Nobody likes to see poverty displayed,” said Alison Brown, professor of urban planning and international development at Cardiff University in Wales.
“In the history of modern urbanization, we’ve got many examples of moving and tidying away poorer people,” said Brown, who has studied street vendors for almost 20 years.
Some government authorities may also be keen to discourage large gatherings of people in public spaces, fearing they could become a hotbed for opposition supporters, she added.
Because most hawkers move around a lot, operate at different times of day and hide from officials, reliable data on their number and contribution to economies is scarce.
Street selling – often a means to earn a living for socially marginalized groups like young people, migrants and women in some countries – is rarely included in government statistics and policy.
Healthy fast food
Over the decades, hawkers have played a crucial role in the growth of Asia’s urban areas, becoming a vital part of their local economies, researchers said.
These armies of street sellers attract tourists, keep the cost of living low by providing cheap goods and healthy fast food, and support supply chains, they added.
Poorer residents often lack access to cooking facilities at home, and cannot afford to shop at supermarkets or eat at high-end restaurants.
“People prefer the freshness, proximity, interpersonal relations and quality of what you get on the street,” said IIED’s Vorley.
Although few urban areas in Asia do a good job of managing street vendors, Suri of Cities Alliance noted some successes.
Indonesian cities like Solo in Central Java are starting to accommodate vendors and are recognizing their key role in the economy and as custodians of the local cuisine, he added.
India has created a national association of street vendors, which could be replicated across Asia, researchers said.
In addition to giving hawkers representation, the Indian association boosts the income and profile of its members by organizing food festivals in urban areas involving vendors and their different local cuisines from around the country.
Over the decades, Singapore has moved street-food stalls to regulated and more hygienic centers, but Cardiff University’s Brown said the island city-state’s small size, relatively wealthy hawkers, and tightly controlled political system and urban development make that difficult to replicate elsewhere.
Street vendors need help to create groups that give them a voice, enabling them to become part of city decision-making and to campaign for more rights, researchers said.
Local associations for specific areas, like a bus station or town square, could also help manage and clean those spaces with vendors’ involvement.
Urban planners and real-estate businesses should consider street vendors in their spatial planning and development projects, while new infrastructure – like transport systems – must also take street traders into account, researchers said.
Designated zones are a good option, but should be located where there is high footfall with well-maintained infrastructure, such as bridges, lighting and toilets, to attract customers, they added.
Imaginative use of urban spaces – like pedestrianised night markets – can also work well, they said.
Reed at WIEGO said other cities around the world that are serving as a model for Asia’s mega-cities are now trying to attract small businesses and vendors, and create street markets.
“They’re all trying to enliven their cities,” she said. “Asian cities have this tremendous asset that provides so many services, beyond employment and tourism,that make the city more livable and affordable.”