For the uninitiated, Junels Restobar is easy to miss, tucked away down a nondescript back alley in Sai Ying Pun. But for those in the know, it’s one of the city’s hidden gems: an always-friendly neighbourhood restaurant where customers can belt out karaoke classics over plates heaped with authentic Filipino food.

Owner Julie Mangrobang has been in business since 2008, the year in which Hong Kong and the world were rocked by the Global Financial Crisis, but the past 12 months have been more tumultuous still. Against the backdrop of the protests, Junels was forced to relocate from its original premises behind the nearby Best Western Plus hotel last summer when the building was scheduled for demolition.

Junels Restobar. Photo Junels Restobar, via Facebook.

With the prohibitive cost of moving and setting up a new venue, it seemed like this might be the end of the road for Junels. But a group of regular customers took matters into their own hands, launching a fundraising drive that ultimately saved the bar.

“Once I accepted the offer, I didn’t think about how much money they might raise; I was just thinking about how they were supporting me, how they are concerned. It really made me feel loved,” Mangrobang told HKFP. “It encouraged me to do it again. Because I didn’t know my customers that well, but they are the ones who fixed everything and supported me. I consider myself a blessed person.”

Junels Mk II opened its doors in August 2019, while the protests continued across the city. It was a “very difficult” time to open, Mangrobang said, with fewer people venturing out in the evenings, but she kept going with the support of her regulars. The coronavirus outbreak, however, has proved much more challenging, with business dropping by up to 90 per cent.

First and foremost a restaurant, Junels wasn’t required to shut down like the city’s more typical karaoke lounges. But the singing sessions for which it has become famous ceased from April 1 until May 29 in accordance with government restrictions, and the number of customers plummeted.

“Some days we only had two customers in total, other days just three or four. So we closed early,” Mangrobang said.

Julie Mangrobang. Photo: Paul Kay.

Since Junels is a family business Mangrobang operates with her husband, son and two kitchen staff, she did not have to downsize her workforce during this period and was able to secure a two-month rent reduction from her landlord.

She was also eligible to receive financial support through the government’s Catering Business (Social Distancing) Subsidy Scheme: “That was really a very big help as otherwise, I cannot pay the rent.”

Now that karaoke is back on the menu, business has started picking up again. Customers are once again free to grab the mic to demonstrate their vocal talents to the rest of the bar, albeit with added social distancing and hygiene measures.

Along with standard temperature checks and regular sanitation of all surfaces, the microphone head is now wrapped in a tissue-paper covering that is changed between singers, while the microphone is also wiped down after every song.

Photo: GovHK.

Mangrobang, who has been in Hong Kong for more than 30 years, said as social distancing measures are relaxed further, she hopes more karaoke lovers will return soon to fill the air with renditions of their favourite songs.

She added she dreams the new Junels emerges from this challenging period with longevity to match the original: “I want to keep going as long as I can.”

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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.