14 Mar, 2014
As early as 3 a.m. every weekday morning, people begin queuing to buy bah-tong-koh at Yai Nawm’s street-side stall. The secret to making the kind of bah-tong-koh that customers keep coming back for is all in the frying, explains the 54-year-old street vendor; the deep-fried dough sticks should be crunchy on the outside while still fluffy and cloud-like on the inside. And, as her most satisfied customers can attest to, they are best eaten still warm from the wok.
Located on a busy side street amidst the towering office blocks of Bangkok’s central business district, Yai Nawm’s stall attracts a steady stream of suburb-dwelling office workers who have travelled into the city centre and need to grab breakfast before going to work. They queue impatiently as Yai Nawm slices the spongy dough into inch-long pieces, drops them into an oversized wok of boiling oil, and expertly turns each one until it is perfectly crisp and golden. As dawn breaks and the morning wears on, she works her way through four sizeable buckets of dough. By 9 a.m., when most office workers have disappeared into the surrounding skyscrapers, Yai Nawm has usually made around 1,500 pieces of bah-tong-koh and is already packing up her stall for the day.
“All I have is one really good recipe”
Yai Nawm never intended to be a street-side vendor but, as she says, she had little choice in the matter. “It’s the sort of work you do when you don’t know how to do anything else,” she says. “What else can I do? I have no education – goodness, I can’t even read or write! All I have is one really good recipe for how to make bah-tong-koh…”
Originally from the countryside in Lopburi province, Yai Nawm followed her siblings to Bangkok as they migrated to the capital in search of regular work. When she married, her husband supported the family while she stayed at home looking after their three daughters. But he passed away 17 years ago, and Yai Nawm was left with no savings or insurance so she had to find a way to make ends meet. After trying her hand at a variety of odd jobs, she cobbled together enough money to buy a secondhand food trolley and started making bah-tong-koh.
Today, Yai Nawn lives in a dilapidated row-house with five grandchildren and her grown daughters (all now single mothers). The top-floor of the house is uninhabitable as the ceiling has caved in and the entire family sleeps in one room on the first floor while the ground floor is reserved for cooking, eating and preparing bah-tong-koh dough each evening before bed-time.
Tucked away behind the offices, banks, and five-star hotels of Sathorn Road, one of Bangkok’s main thoroughfares, the down-at-heel-neighbourhood is home to numerous food vendors plying their trade in the city centre. Yai Nawm’s neighbours include a late-night noodle vendor, a fresh fruit vendor, and a family that make and sell Chinese salapao (dumplings). At 8,000 baht a month, the rent is high for most of the inhabitants but it’s a necessary expense as they need to live close the central business district where they can find a steady and regular stream of customers – none of them would be able to afford the time or cost of commuting into the city centre.
As Yai Nawm will be the first to admit, it’s far from an ideal place to raise children. Eviction is a constant threat as the city continues to grow and landlords are enticed to sell out to property developers with plans to build more office blocks or condominiums. And Yai Nawm worries constantly about burglars and drug dealers. A thief recently cut through the metal grille she pulls across the house front each night. She feeds two stray dogs and encourages them to hang around the property in the hope that they will provide a modicum of security. “What else can we do?” she asks, laughingly reiterating her familiar refrain. “We’re all women in this house except for my one grandson and he’s not even as high as my waist yet!”
The precarious economics of working street-side
“You’ll notice that no one from around here ever improves their lot,” says Yai Nawm. “They just keep at it and try to make a living day to day.” Indeed, there’s a precise and precarious economics to Yai Nawm’s trade. She sells her bah-tong-koh at two baht a stick and, on a good day, makes around 3,000 baht. Once she has subtracted expenses for a helper, ingredients, plastic bags for the bah-tong-koh, and the cost of renting space for her stall, she is left with a daily profit of around 1,000 baht. That’s if she’s lucky; there are constant variables – such as rainy weather, anti-government protests, national holidays and the rising cost of cooking oil – all of which can negatively affect a vendors’ profit margin.
Living expenses also vary throughout the year. Yai Nawm’s budget falls out of balance at the beginning of each school term, for instance, when school uniforms and new textbooks have to be purchased, or when a family member falls ill. Some years ago Yai Nawm herself was diagnosed with cancer and she has undergone two operations as well as chemotherapy. Though she is eligible for free healthcare at the government hospital in the area where she holds an official house registration document, it is too far away for her to get to easily so she pays for her treatment at a nearby teaching hospital. To cover these additional costs, she supplements her food vending with odd jobs: “I’ll do absolutely anything,” she says. “I’ll clean or look after people’s houses while they’re away, take care of their pets – whatever it takes…”
Beating the ever-increasing competition
Aside from a good recipe, the other secret to attracting and keeping customers is regularity. As Yai Nawm explains, customers depend on their favourite street vendors being in the same place at the same time each day; if the stall isn’t there one day they will start patronizing other more reliable stalls. The ever-increasing urban population may amount to more potential customers each year, but it also means there are more food vendors on the streets and competition can be fierce.
Without fail, then, Yai Nawm rises at 2 a.m. every weekday morning, loads her tubs of pre-prepared dough onto a tuk tuk for the short ride to her stall, and fires up the wok. “Bangkok has changed so much since I first came here,” she says. “Each neighbourhood used to have a sense of community. People looked after each other. You’d always offer to help if you saw someone lying on the pavement. That’s not the case anymore – no one even stops to check if they’re still breathing! There is no doubt that Bangkok is a harsher, harder city than it used to be.”