After months of intense protests and now Covid-19, local businesses across Hong Kong are struggling to stay afloat amidst a major economic downturn. Hive Life interviewed shop owners about the radical changes their industries have gone through across the past few decades…
Hui Wai-kin: “I’ve been working since I was 12, since ‘62. It was a different time. I wasn’t suited for studying, and my exam results weren’t good enough for me to get into high school, so I started working. I started out herding pigs, doing trivial tasks. Afterwards, I started my own store – I’ve had it for over 30 years now.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in our trade. I’ve worked with the government, participating in legislative processes to bring different types of pork to market. We’ve gone through a lot, starting last May with the swine flu, then the political unrest, and now the coronavirus. Other industries may have gone through two major events, but we’ve had three. Our industry has been through a lot in the past year.”
Luk: “I’ve been in the profession for 50 odd years. I came into this profession in my teens. Back then, it wasn’t about whether I liked this profession or not. It was about earning money.
“It’s tough doing business now. There used to be a lot of people in Happy Valley making shoes, but there are very few people in the trade now. I still work because if I don’t, there’s nothing else to do. So I have to continue going.”
Ho: “I’ve been working at this stall selling children’s clothing for over 30 years. When I first started working, the business was great, because a lot of people had children. But now, there are fewer children; the birth rate in Hong Kong has dropped. Online shopping has become a major trend, which is bad for business.
“People aren’t happy in their lives now, and they don’t have the ability to care for children, so it’s better that they don’t have kids. Especially in Hong Kong, it’s already difficult for people to buy a flat, so having kids is out of the question. Back in my day, people would have 6, 7 kids, and they all took care of each other. But it’s different now.
“The biggest difference is the way people interact with each other now. Back in the day, people were kinder. People who lived in the same neighbourhood looked out for each other, but that’s not the case now. You’d be lucky to get a ‘Good morning’.”
Fu: “I’ve been working in the antique industry for 61 years. When I first entered the industry, it was by whimsical choice. But I can’t change that now. Even if I could go back and choose, I’d pick this industry all over again.
“Prior to the handover, the business was better than it is now. Foreigners had to stop at Hong Kong before passing through to the mainland, but that’s no longer the case. I’m sorry to say that Hong Kong is no longer relevant.”
Feng: “I’ve done a lot of things in my past, but I’ve only had two main jobs my whole life – one in security and one as a technician. I retired when I was 63 and I’m in my 70s now. I was a security expert before. Everyone knows me – I used to be part of CY Leung’s security detail. Now, I spend my days here being a hawker with my wife.
“The culture is good here and I’ve witnessed the economy getting better and better. People have more security now. The worst thing about HK is its pension and benefits. It’s not enough, but I try to depend on myself. If I think about it too much, it just causes stress.”
“I’ve been at this shop for 13 years. I’m in my 50s now. I didn’t enter this profession because I like it, but it’s more about supporting my family and fulfilling my promise to do so.
“I used to be a boat driver. I changed profession and started selling costumes because of the money. At the start, business was good because people were into Halloween costumes and most of my customers were from overseas, but these past few years there have been fewer people because they are bored of the same things.
“Right now, I can survive because most of my customers are people into drama like schools and teachers. Drama is good because it’s really about helping students express themselves. Chinese people are typically shy about going on stage. Western people are typically less scared. But we’re all just people – there’s nothing to be scared about!”
Edward Wu: “When I started in stationery 40 years ago, the economy was worse than it is now. I knew and worked for someone in the profession. We helped each other. Back then, the standard of education wasn’t as good. People call me a boss, but being a boss is really like a menial worker. As a boss, I have to do everything. I wash the toilets and do everything other people do and everything they don’t.
“Back when I started, there was no Internet. We would cold call or hand out leaflets. Technology has improved – even a simple herbal tea shop now uses machines and supermarkets have improved. Manpower was more important before, and now there is technology to replace that.
“People are living longer so even at my age, I can still work. Li Ka Shing is in his 90s and he’s still going, so I still have a long way to go!”
Kwan: “I decided to build my own store around 20 years ago. It’s a family business, so we just worry about ourselves. During SARS, the impact seemed smaller because the situation didn’t last for long and the economy bounced back almost immediately.
Nowadays, Hong Kong is facing two tough problems: the virus and the political climate. I believe there’s hope, though. Things will take a turn for the better; Hong Kong’s going to be fine. We just have to persevere.”
Tsan Long Tin: “My father worked in carpentry, so I followed in his footsteps. Back in the day, the business did a lot better, so things were tougher. We were a lot busier. Now, we’re a lot freer – nobody comes in because of the virus.
“Compared to SARS, the impact is much bigger. It’s transmitted from person-to-person, so people are wearing masks everywhere. Everyone’s afraid of getting infected. I have a son, a daughter and a wife. If I get infected, I could infect my whole family. Hong Kong is living in fear.
“I plan to continue working, to just live on, and when I retire, my children can take care of me. That’s just what life is.”
Cen: “I’ve been working here for 10 years. Back when I first came, there weren’t many tenants. It was mostly storage facilities. Since the MTR station opened, a lot more offices have opened here. The station’s really made the area flourish.
“A lot of people say, ‘You’re already at such an old age; you should quit!” But I personally don’t have a lot of hobbies and I think you have to stay active even after retirement. If you sit at home and do nothing, it’s easy to get dementia. Then you wouldn’t even recognise your kids! That’d be terrible.”
Brian Lee: “Everyone in the industry knows something’s wrong. Now that we no longer have tourists, we have to rely on our regular customers more. Stores are closing up earlier now, so the streets in this area get very quiet.
“I’ve been keeping my stall open until 9 or 10 so my regulars are still able to visit. If everyone keeps closing up early, the market will only get worse. It’s the only thing I can do.”
Chung Pak-sung: “I opened this store in ’93. I’ve worked in Chinese Medicine for 40 years. It’s a family business. I love my job. I couldn’t have done it for this long if I didn’t.
“A lot has changed since I first started in this industry. This area used to be bustling. A lot of people lived around here. You could house a couple hundred people in one building. You could fit 50 people in one flat, with a family of 10 in each room. Now, one flat only houses one person. There’s nobody around anymore because they’re rebuilding the area.”
Sze Kwok-leung: “I’ve been in this industry for 50 years. Back in the 70’s, it was a flourishing business, but it’s been dwindling. Things have changed in Hong Kong. Back in the day, the manufacturing business was what drove Hong Kong’s economy, but now it’s been replaced by industries like the financial industry. Back then, everyone had a job, but now there are fewer work opportunities, for instance, in the financial industry due to technological development.
“I’m about at the age of retirement, but I want to keep working because I like it. It’s important to keep using your brain, and to keep your body moving. I think I’ll keep working here until my body can’t take it anymore.”
Jenora Vaswani is an Assistant Editor at Hive Life. Specialising in SEO strategy and digital marketing, she reports on business news in the Asia Pacific and has covered global conferences including RISE 2019 and Alibaba’s Jumpstarter.