Let's talk Pasar Malam.
Pasar Malam (or night market) is a stalwart of my childhood: many evenings spent swinging my legs under my chair, eating my char kuay teow or my lontong and slurping on my freshly squeezed watermelon juice, served to me in a clear plastic bag. The noise and the clatter of two dozen stalls, woks hissing, and over it all the yelling and the chatter. The floors were always solid, the chairs plastic and uncomfortable. The food was fast, and cheap, and if I was feeling picky I'd stand with the lady at the front and add and remove things from my order until my char kuay teow was perfect (I've never liked prawns, or chinese sausage), and this was not an inconvenience, it was merely an expectation.
There are other Night Markets, across the rest of Asia and indeed the rest of the world; but to Australians, the image of a night market most frequently conjures something like a pasar malam.
This week, the Night Noodle Markets have come to Melbourne as part of Good Food Month, and it is nothing like this.
If you were lucky enough to gain entry on Monday night (25 000 people attended, and some were turned away at the gates), you might have passed through a Shinto Arch, erected at the Western Entrance. That's funny, you might think. Shinto temples do indeed host festivals, and I've had some delicious noodles at festivals held on Shinto grounds, but they're nearly always religious and the Shinto Arch, religious as it is, seems an odd choice for a pan-asian food festival.
To one side are the food trucks. If you're wondering where you're going, there's poorly planned signage: with streets like Lotus Avenue, Jasmin (sic) Way, Orchid Lane and Peppercorn Lawn, coupled with the Shinto Arch and the names of some of the vendors, perhaps you're thinking about losing your way.
The Night Noodle Markets are nothing like what they're trying to evoke: they're trying to evoke something South East Asian. The Good Food Month webpage talks about SEAzn experiences, describing the market as hawker-style, and even quotes Teage Ezard (of Ezard), saying about his first pasar malam experience in KL: "I ate late at night with a local who took care of our ordering. We ate a huge amount for next to nothing!"
Here's what I ate on Monday night:
Mint, ginger and lemon iced tea: $5
Serving of sweet potato fries (not that large) and one single spring onion pancake from Ghost Kitchen: $10.50
Pandan, coconut and mango sundae (called the En-Thai-Sing, which, ew but also lol): $9
Originally I joined the Wonderbao queue, because I've never tried Wonderbao and I've heard many a good thing. However after standing in the queue for ten minutes and not moving a single step, I ditched it and wandered over to the food trucks, where at least the queues were faster, though dumplings were still $2.50 each.
Street food across Asia is a success because it's ordinary, cheap, accessible and fast. Vendors often do only two or three things but they do those two or three things well, and fast, and to order, which none of the vendors were doing. As a vegan, when I'm hanging in the pasar malams of Penang with my sceptical extended family I never have any problems modifying my dish to get exactly what I want. Asian street food gets a bad rap amongst vegos, which is totally unfair - I so rarely have problems, particularly in SEA, due to the fact it is literally put together in front of me. It is always convenient, cheap, fast, and exactly what I want. The food available at the Night Noodle Markets is none of these things, and is the antithesis of a pasar malam in every way.
In part, this is due to the participating vendors. To get a more accurate night market we should be staring down the face of Camy's Dumpling House, a Dessert Story or two, and the Noodle Kingdom. Some of the vendors come from outside the CBD (Footscray and Burwood), and some are lower range, but for the most part the vendors were all inner-city, catering to toned-down Asian (ie, for white people) mid-range to high-range dining. The Good Food website describes the vendors as "Top-notch eateries." If I wanted to eat at a top-notch eatery at higher than usual prices, I'd go to those eateries and book a table. That's not what a night market is for.
This is different from the specific cultural events like the Melbourne Malaysia Festival, which are usually run in partnership and aimed at both those whose culture is being eaten, and those who just want to share in our deliciousness. This superficial pan-Asian (but not even really) event appeals to us, but ultimately cannot meet our expectations, because they're not designed for us, the Asian-Australians (or Asian Expats) who long for these things familiar to us. This event is not that event. This is exotification and appropriation, dressed to be Good Food. Good Food is special, by this definition. Hawker food is not Good Food, and there will never be a real pasar malam if this is all we can aim for: an event for those who love us for a specifically modified image of our food, rather than its reality.
Even the setting was like nothing out of a pasar malam. When I arrived, everything was wide and spread out, necessitating a five minute trek between sections. When I was leaving, there were queues at each entrance, with people being turned away or choosing to turn themselves away and venture into the CBD for their dinner. 25 000 people visited on that first evening, and that is a fucking nightmare by any standards, in a space the size of Alexandria Gardens. The queues at each vendor were ridiculous, and often poorly managed, and a commenter on the Good Food webpage mentioned that it closed at 9pm, which is hardly late at all given sunset is currently 20:16.
The punters were heavily on the asian-side, which isn't a surprise: we love our night markets (a generalisation by which I will stand). The servers at a number of the venues were not-Asian, though, and this is not an article on authenticity (which is why I haven't really talked about the food) but it does serve to support the idea that this is a Night Noodle Market that doesn't really meet Our Asian Needs: it's got some familiar elements, but it's not exactly what we want, the cheapness, the accessibility, the speediness, the convenience.
This failure and disappointment was inevitable, given the lack of a real pasar malam. A part of a night market is, in its way, its accessibility and familiarity. A pasar malam should not be an Event - it should just be a thing. Perhaps the real answer is not a Good Food Month night market which runs (poorly) for two weeks out of the year, but a year-round (or summer round) under cover pasar malam, with actual prices (not show prices - Hayley, my companion in this adventure, noted that Wonderbao had increased its prices approximately $1 per item for the market). It leads to the question, then: at whom is Good Food Month aimed, if the Good Food Month Night Noodle Market met none of the assumed criteria. What defines good food? Surely the very definition of good food as presented here, with Chin-Chin and Longrain right here before us, cannot include hawker food. Perhaps the actual real answer is not a year-round pasar malam: perhaps the answer is that Melbourne can't support a real pasar malam, because costs are too high and there's no established history of it and who is going to establish it and keep it running? I'd like to say it'll be me, but it really won't.
Actual Night Market food, it seems, and an actual night market, is not good enough for Good Food Month.
And there was a detestable lack of noodles.
The Night Noodle Markets are held at Alexandria Gardens from now until November 30th. Entry is free. Don't go.