In late February, a mainland tourist caused a disturbance on a Hong Kong subway. The reason? Eating in public.In Hong Kong it is illegal to eat on the subway, and when the tourist was scolded by a Hong Kong local, the situation escalated into a verbal slinging match.
In New York City, eating on the subway is also controversial. No law bans the practice, but a Democratic state senator introduced one last week.The proposed law would ban eating on the subway system and fine first time violators $250 (1,579 yuan), according to The New York Times.Proponents of the bill argue that eating on the subway attracts rats. Others say the broader target should be litterbugs, rather than those who discreetly sip their coffee and eat their bagels on the way to work.They also argue that “street food” is an important part of New York’s culture and history. Banning its consumption in public areas such as the subway would have negative effects.
Street food, and eating in public places is an entrenched cultural practice in cities as diverse as New York, Beijing and Paris.But while common, it has been traditionally thought of as the domain of the lower classes. Eating in public was (and in some places, still is) associated with uncivilized, poorer people.In the 19th century, eating in public was seen as a threat to morality and public health. Putnam’s (a popular magazine at the time) stated: “Eating in public may beget a certain freedom of manner and nonchalance in little ladies and gentlemen.”It was something people in the Victorian era did not want to encourage.A recent New York Times article drew a link between this moral panic about street food and concern over the growing populations of Irish, German, Italian and Jewish immigrants who ran food carts in the 1800s.“To Victorian society, immigrant street peddlers were “hucksters,” a name that retains a whiff of moral judgment to this day.”
In Australia, street food is not something you see every day. Carts selling tasty morsels only come out for festivals or market days.However, eating in public places such as parks is encouraged. Outdoor barbeques at the beach or picnics in the countryside are common.While eating on public transport is discouraged, it would unlikely lead to any sort of conflict in Australia.From an Australian perspective, street food is an exciting new dining opportunity, and not one I would associate with being uncivilized. It’s also very tasty.
China’s street food scene is similar to that of New York City’s: it is a culturally entrenched practice and one that adds a lot of color and flavor to the streetscape.But whether you love eating street food, or have to eat your breakfast on the run, it’s best to be considerate when enjoying a bite in public.