The touts still loiter outside one of Hong Kong’s most iconic landmarks, but Covid — and the Hong Kong government’s tough preventative measures — has left its mark on Chungking Mansions along with the rest of the once-bustling city.
The complex on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, 17 storeys and five blocks which opened in 1961, was for decades a haven for Asia’s backpacker tourists, wholesalers and other small businesses and people seeking a cheap yet exotic Indian dining experience.
Now the tourists have largely vanished and restaurants must shut at 6 p.m., with a maximum two per table. The touts who once flocked around the entrance flashing business cards, offering to change your money or find you a guesthouse or the perfect curry, are finding it hard to make a living.
Rajinderpal Singh, or Jacky as he’s often called, is one of them. The 54-year-old has just dashed out and shown two young people walking past the building his cards. No luck.
“Business is very slow these days,” said Jacky, frowning as he walked back inside.
Battling a deadly fifth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Hong Kong government — pressured by Beijing to stick to the “dynamic Covid-zero strategy” — has tightened its social distancing regulations, including allowing only two people to eat at the same table, banning dine-in services after 6 p.m. and requiring vaccination records for restaurants, supermarkets and dozens of other venues.
The effectiveness of such strategies to tackle the highly-contagious Omicron variant remains questionable. But what is unarguable is their devastating effect on small businesses, which have already suffered two tough years since the beginning of 2020. Those inside the warren-like Chungking Mansions are no exception.
Jacky’s family has been doing business in Chungking Mansions for almost 50 years. They have watched it shift from a hippie haven to what the anthropologist Gordon Mathews has described as a centre of “low-end globalisation,” a tourism site, “a symbol of unity” during the 2019 protests, a hang-out for people from the developing world — and now a shell of its colourful past.
In 1975, years after he settled in Hong Kong, Jacky’s father opened a grocery selling Indian products on the first floor right next to the stairs. Nine years later, Jacky started his own career there after completing Year 12 in secondary school.
Hong Kong’s economy was booming at the time, with annual growth averaging 8.9 per cent in the 1970s and 7.4 per cent in the 1980s, according to government data.
Jacky’s family was also expanding its businesses in that period, trading Yasaki and other sports shoes, textiles for saris and other products. That’s why when cousin Balli proposed opening a restaurant in Chungking Mansions in 1987, Jacky didn’t think twice before giving his approval.
Back then, Chungking Mansions had no licensed restaurants, only food stalls, according to Jacky. The family embraced the new business, and kept it rolling. The family now owns three Indian restaurants — that serve everything from street food such as samosa and pani poori, to dozens of curry dishes, roasted food or tandoori, naan bread and masala chaai — and a food factory in Chungking Mansions, as well as a restaurant in Macau.
But Jacky himself wasn’t fully engaged with them until recently.
Although its economy has generally grown steadily, Hong Kong has been hit by a series of crises since 1997, and in recent decades has faced competition from rising mainland competitors such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Shanghai.
Chungking Mansions is no exception to the trend. Mathews said it has lost its status as a centre of “low-end globalisation” in the past decade as traders have chosen to go straight to Guangzhou — or more recently, Vietnam.
Jacky’s shoe trading business and other ventures began losing money. About five years ago he came back to Chungking Mansions.
He now works eight hours a day, six days a week, spreading cards at the entrance, greeting customers and escorting them up to his three restaurants on the first floor — the oldest Swagat, the vegan Saravana, and the most popular, the Moti Palace. Jacky’s photos with the Hong Kong boy bands Error and the TVB actor Gill Mohindepaul Singh are displayed at the entrance.
Jacky’s fluent Cantonese stands him in good stead during his role as a tout for business.
Mathews, who still visits Chungking Mansions frequently even after finishing his book Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong, is impressed by Jacky’s Cantonese, as much as by his willingness to show it off.
“It was surprising to me how he loved to really interact, so much that some of the students I was with wished he would be quiet,” he said.
But Jacky said he’s just one among his more than 100 family members in Hong Kong who are all fluent Cantonese speakers. They’ve “invented” a new language for their daily conversations — a mixture of English, Cantonese and Punjabi.
Jacky came to Hong Kong at the age of three and his mother’s family has been living in the city for almost 100 years. “We are Hong Kong people; of course our Cantonese is very good,” he said.
Punjab, where Jacky was born, is now just a holiday destination for him. He used to visit the northern Indian state with family members every year before the pandemic. His wife and children liked it there, but Jacky couldn’t tolerate the water quality, nor the heat in summer.
He prefers Hong Kong, saying that the city has everything he needs for a good life, whether it’s safety or the friendships he cultivated.
“I don’t want to leave Hong Kong,” he said.
After losing its role as a centre of “low-end globalisation”, Chungking Mansions has been largely dependent on tourism, according to Dennis Cheung, an administration worker at Chungking Mansions.
“Most of the business in the shopping arcade are driven by the tourists staying in the guesthouses in the building,” he said.
“There was a time when many local people came into the building for the restaurants, to experience some authentic curry. But we can see that the trend has faded and the local group of people cannot be counted as their core customers…” he said.
Tourists used to make up the shortfall but strict quarantine regulations have deterred the vast majority of them. Sukhmander Singh, a 40-year-old vendor on the ground floor, is struggling to make a living. He said the building has been quiet since 2020.
Jacky said his restaurants used to serve 80 to 90 tables daily in the pre-pandemic era, yet the number now is barely five.
The government has been offering subsidies for restaurants to combat the pandemic. In January, Jacky received HK$50,000 for each of his restaurants, and is expecting to get another HK$100,000 per restaurant this month. And his landlord has also cut rent by 10 per cent.
But he said it’s still not enough to cover his outgoings. “We don’t want money, we want to open the restaurants at night-time,” he said.
He hopes for an upswing by the end of this year. Otherwise, he’ll wait five more years to see if business improves.
“If not, everyone will leave Hong Kong,” he said.
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