Walking down the eastern end of Caine Road after dark, it’s hard to miss the otherworldly green glow that emanates from the ground floor tenant at No.37. But for most of April and early May, the neon sign advertising popular neighbourhood massage parlour Soho Relax was conspicuously unlit due to the government’s mandatory closure of all such businesses.

For owner Sally Ng, the shutdown was just the latest in a series of challenges that have adversely affected her business over the past year. Already 30-40 per cent down in the second half of 2019 due to the protests, Ng experienced a 90 per cent drop in business in February and March as customers eschewed close-contact services such as massages due to coronavirus fears. “Sometimes we had only two or three customers a day,” she recalls.

Soho Relax. Photo: Paul Kay.

Somewhat ironically, Ng’s early insistence that all staff and customers wear masks and use hand sanitiser – rules she implemented from the beginning of February – meant having to turn away bookings. “Some customers did not want to wear a mask and were asking why they had to do it. But I said, ‘If you won’t wear a mask then I can’t take your booking’.”

Ng says she also started asking customers about their recent travel history and refused bookings for those who had travelled overseas in the previous 14 days. “At that moment, the government did not have travel restrictions in place, so some customers asked ‘Why?’ I told them I needed to protect my business and my clients, and my staff as well. Most people understood, but a few got angry with me – at least now they understand why I did that, and they appreciate it.”

Despite these measures, Soho Relax was forced to close from April 10 to May 8 under government orders that shuttered all beauty salons, spas and massage parlours. Although the shop was lying empty during this time, Ng says her landlord initially refused to reduce her rent. After much negotiation, Ng eventually secured a significant discount for three months. However, with business still well down on last year, even after reopening, she is hoping that the reduction period can be extended further.

File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“We were worried about the business, and the staff had no income at all,” says Ng. “Staff are self-employed and work on commission, so if you have no customers, then they get no pay.”

During the shutdown, Ng helped arrange home bookings for her regular customers, but there was limited demand. “People were scared of the idea of anyone bringing the virus to their home, I think. And people were also not willing to pay extra. Home service is more expensive due to added costs like travel.”

When allowed to reopen, Ng says business boomed – briefly. “For the first week [after reopening] business was back to around 70 per cent – the first few days were crazy – but now it’s slow again. Even weekends are down 30 per cent compared to pre-protests levels because people’s habits have changed.”

Ng says her business has also been affected by the closure of schools, as a significant portion of her usual afternoon clientele are parents who pop in for a massage while their kids are attending one of the many education and tutorial centres nearby.

File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In terms of government support, Ng initially applied for the Retail Sector Subsidy Scheme, but was told that she was not eligible and was instead referred to the Subsidy Scheme for Beauty Parlours, Massage Establishments and Party Rooms, which provides a one-off subsidy of up to HK$100,000 for eligible businesses. She is awaiting the result. Ng describes the subsidy as “better than nothing – but compared to F&B businesses, it’s a different story. If you have [an F&B business with the same square footage as Soho Relax], you already get at least HK$250,000. Why is there so much difference [in the amount of government support] between industries when we pay equal tax?”

The self-employed massage therapists at Soho Relax, meanwhile, can apply for a one-off payment of HK$7,500 under the Employment Support Scheme. But with business down, Ng is worried staff may leave and move to other areas of the city, or even change industries, in search of regular income. Ng’s part-time receptionist, for example, has already gone to work for her father’s business after her hours were reduced.

Sally Ng. Photo: Paul Kay.

“I will try to survive if I can, but if I cannot, I will try to open a smaller shop where maybe I can control the rent better,” says Ng. She adds that she believes the government could do more to subsidise the lost revenue and help small businesses such as hers survive – both during and after the pandemic. “I think the most important thing is the rental, she says. “If they could think about some sort of scheme to control the rent for small businesses, that would help a lot – especially during this time of Covid.”

Paul Kay

Paul Kay is a Hong Kong-based journalist and editor. His work has appeared in The Times, The Independent, Forbes, Wall Street Journal Asia and the South China Morning Post, among others.