The Kuching food circus is back in town


THE very popular and much anticipated annual event on the Kuching South City Council (MBKS) calendar has always been the Kuching Festival Food Fair (KFF).

I call it the annual food lovers’ circus when Kuching foodies converge with one common goal into the small area that is popularly known as the old Jubilee Hall grounds (now the forecourt of the MBKS Building) at Jalan Wee Kheng Chiang.

Road users are duly advised to avoid this stretch of road, both ways, for the entirety of this period from about 6pm till 11pm nightly. It is usually jam-packed with parked vehicles of all sorts and driving past this area is a constant headache.

This year’s three-week event started yesterday and will end on Aug 19.

On its 32nd year, the KFF will have in total 287 stalls – from food and drinks to games and exhibitions of all kinds; products big and small, imported and local, from edibles and household to the latest gadgets and motor vehicles from a wide range of countries.

The food and drinks available will be both halal and non-halal and there will be live entertainment as well as singing competitions and other games. It’s really quite a circus to be sure.

The Kuching Festival itself started small, it was a brilliant idea hatched way back in 1986 when Datuk Song Swee Guan was the president of the then Kuching Municipal Council (KMC).

It was started basically to host members and participants of the then PATA Conference (Pacific Area Tourism Association), which was held in Kuching, as an extra attraction for its many overseas guests. At the time (and actually to be truthful even today) Kuching city at night did not have many attractions to speak of – other than the usual night hawker stalls, some dingy nightclubs, many drinkers’ spots at food courts, and a handful of cinemas. There were no night markets, outdoor entertainment, museums or exhibitions, art shows or live theatre and such similar themed offerings in the city.

Visitors had the option to walk along the waterfront esplanade; shop in the few shopping complexes (all of them closing at 10pm); catch a movie; visit a food court; or sing and imbibe at a karaoke joint. Thirty years on, we haven’t improved much, with the addition of a Golden Bridge to walk across and a handful of newer upmarket international hotel pubs to lounge in.

When the KFF first started, the early years saw the participation of the usual suspects of the international hotel kitchens, the established local restaurants, some ‘famous’ local hawker food stalls, and a dozen or so pioneer food entrepreneurs, who were adventurous enough to test the market by introducing new food products.

However, as the years passed, and with more experience gained, these food entrepreneurs began to slowly take over as the main attraction of the fest.

KFF became a huge success. It was the crowd. By 2015, the Mayor of Kuching South Datuk James Chan Khay Syn had proudly proclaimed that over the three-week period, KFF had almost 800,000 visitors. (Of course many of these were repeat visitors and had also included the vendors and contractors, but that was still a very formidable figure to speak of.)

It was the profits to be made. One vendor, sometime in the 2008/2011 period, had personally told me that over the period he had grossed over RM140,000. Imagine the profit. He had only introduced one product then – the German sausage.

KFF itself has brought along its pros and cons. The pros were that many first timers entered the food business during the duration of the fair and introduced new food products, some fully imported, some locally made, most with a mix of both. They were able to sell these new hitherto unavailable (some even unknown) products to the local market at a premium price, with spectacular consumer reception and success. Certainly a few were not as well received.

The problem with such success in a small city like Kuching is that the following year at the same food fair, one can expect to find that the successful new product is now being sold at many other similar product stalls, which have been set up to cash in on its popularity. The Taiwanese sausage in the 1990s come to mind; so too was the German sausage in later years …

The cons? For the other food vendors operating throughout the inner city of Kuching, they would see their businesses drop by more than 50 per cent over this period, when their usual clientele would frequent the fair. I know of a few such food business operators who have taken the opportunity to reschedule their annual holiday to this period and just go overseas.

The good news this year is that the MBKS has declared that this year’s food festival will be free of polystyrene containers (for takeaways and as holders of food consumed on the grounds). It will be interesting to see what they’ve come up with as I know that paper and cardboard containers are difficult to come by, besides being expensive. Please don’t tell me they’ll be replaced by plastic containers.

I look forward to visit as I usually do, and hope to be surprised with some new and interesting food, snacks, or drinks. I wish all those participating and all visitors going a most enjoyable and delicious time there. Bon appétit and cheers!

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