“Hong Kong is back in business” has become a familiar phrase to fall from the mouths of government officials – uttered in at least 11 high-profile addresses since the beginning of the year, including five times in September alone.
But for an elderly hawker in Yau Ma Tei, who cut a lonely figure along the northern end of Temple Street, business was far from back. His stall was the only one open at around 7 pm on a late-September Tuesday. Speaking to HKFP on condition that his name was not used, he said he was about to close for the day, hours earlier than he used to.
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He had been selling wooden handicrafts and calligraphy brushes at Temple Street Night Market – described by travel guide Lonely Planet as a “tourist trap” and “Hong Kong’s liveliest market” – for about 40 years, reopening in 2022 after shuttering for much of the Covid-19 pandemic, during which visitors were essentially barred from the city.
Things these days were different. Faded orange national and Hong Kong flags hung limply in the humid night air, and the once animated street was all but empty. He did not get many customers, the stallholder said, squatting on his plastic stool in front of an industrial floor fan. People seemed less keen to spend money, he added, and that included tourists.
It was a similar story at a footwear store on Mong Kok’s Fa Yuen Street, better known as “sneaker street” and popular with a younger, historically cashed-up clientele. While a website dedicated to the area entreats anyone with “an itch to buy some athletic shoes at 11pm” to head over, the owner of three shops on the street said he had started closing at 9 pm.
Also speaking on condition of anonymity, he told HKFP he had cut staff from six to four during Covid so that he could stay open. But business was down by about 50 per cent compared to pre-pandemic levels, and quieter than it was while anti-epidemic restrictions remained in place. Once, customers would buy several pairs of shoes – now he was lucky if they bought one.
In an effort to redress weak consumption and reinvigorate the city’s evening economy after Covid-related restrictions kept Hongkongers at home for the better part of three years, the government has launched a “Night Vibes Hong Kong” campaign. Much of it is centred around malls, pop-up night markets, and events already firmly entrenched in the city’s calendar – National Day Celebrations, the Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival, and Halloween events at the city’s theme parks.
It also runs from Mid-Autumn Festival, which this year fell in late September, until Lunar New Year in early February, traditionally the city’s busiest period for spending and for tourism.
Speaking to reporters on September 19, Chief Executive John Lee said the campaign aimed to get people “out of their former habits of staying home early.”
“The whole intention and purpose of this Night Vibes Hong Kong programme is to develop a new culture for people to enjoy their night activities more,” Lee said, adding that “activities will mean more people; more people will mean more business and more consumption, which will be good for the overall economic development.”
The campaign kicked off with a weekend market hosted by the Avenue of Stars and shopping centre K11 Musea – both overseen by property and development conglomerate New World Development – along the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront on September 22. In a statement, K11 hailed the first event as a success, with “thriving crowds craving for local specialties” resulting in a 30 per cent surge in footfall. There was no mention of an impact on sales.
Among the local specialities on offer were quintessential Cantonese dishes such as siu mai, which went viral for costing HK$20 for four pieces – a lot by Hong Kong standards. The Fa Yuen Street sneaker store owner told HKFP he did not think the campaign would have a genuine impact, saying that you could buy such snacks on most Mong Kok streets but they did not bring people out.
To make a real difference to the night economy, he suggested the government subsidise stores to stay open. He had started closing earlier during Covid because of a lack of customers and to save staffing costs, and now people were used to shops closing at a certain time and did not look to spend late into the evening. He called it a vicious cycle.
‘Things have changed’
For much of three years, since Covid-19 was first detected in the city in January 2020 until Hong Kong’s border with mainland China was fully reopened in February, the city was subject to some of the most stringent pandemic restrictions in the world.
While spared the strict lockdowns of cities like Shanghai or London, Hongkongers were limited in other ways, including in the number of people allowed to gather in public and around a table at a restaurant – both capped at two when outbreaks were at their worst.
Many of the businesses associated with the night economy – bars, restaurants, karaoke lounges, massage parlours, nightclubs and live music venues – were forced to close completely or operate according to rigorous regulations and curtailed opening hours. Dinner service at eateries was banned for months on end. Several did not survive.
Dining out in large groups has long been part of Hong Kong’s food culture. “People used to go out 15 at a time, families, friends… but now, a lot of them go home at nine o’clock because they’re used to it,” Allan Zeman, the nightlife impresario behind Lan Kwai Fong, one of Hong Kong’s best known after-dark areas, told HKFP by phone in early September.
“Covid changed a lot of habits for a lot of people… people are used to eating at home,” Zeman said. “Things have changed.”
Syed Asim Hussain, founder of hospitality group Black Sheep Restaurants, echoed Zeman’s assertion that things were different. “The landscape has changed, it’s dramatically changed,” he told HKFP by video call in late September. “The message internally is we’re not holding our collective breath for things to go back to how they were in 2018.”
Without tourism, a pillar industry that in 2019 contributed around 3.6 per cent to Hong Kong’s gross domestic product and employed some 232,700 people, according to government figures, consumption in the city fell off a cliff in early 2020. Spending still lags behind 2019 levels, which were depressed during the protests and unrest that shook Hong Kong that year.
Restaurant receipts have shown a more consistent rise, but likewise languish below the amount spent on eating out in 2019, with provisional data for the second quarter showing a decline from the first.
Economic sociologist at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Anson Au told HKFP that the impact of Covid on Hongkongers was “longitudinal.”
Speaking via video call in September, Au spoke of the “disruption” many suffered. “If they had any spells of unemployment, which [many] did during that time, the financial effects are… long term, because you had to dip into your savings to basically recuperate, and that takes some time to bounce back,” Au said.
The timing of Hong Kong’s reopening also played a role in people’s willingness to spend, he added.
“We’re at this time when consumer confidence is a little bit lower than is normal because there is some concern about a recession on both sides of the aisle,” Au said. “We have concerns about slowdown in China, we have concerns about a slowdown in America, and whenever consumers are afraid about that, that usually shows up in discretionary spending – so that’s basically stuff that is a luxury but not a need.”
Hongkongers have seemed keener to part with their money while overseas – another blow for domestic consumption. Even before the border reopened, a 2022 report from Mastercard Economic Institute highlighted a “sharp recovery in outbound travel” across the Asia-Pacific region, adding it was “notable” in Hong Kong, “where the demand has been growing since the implementation of the ‘0+3’ quarantine policy.”
Introduced last September, the 0+3 requirement replaced quarantine for arrivals with a complex series of nucleic and rapid tests, allowing Hongkongers for the first time in years to travel without having to undergo isolation upon their return.
The trend for overseas travel has continued since all border controls were dropped, with Hussain saying “revenge travel” – people’s desire to expand their horizons after not being able to do so – was evident. “Our guests that we would see a few times a week, they’re on the road all the time,” he said.
“The other thing that we’re seeing is guests even within our portfolio are trading down,” Hussain said, referring to the phenomenon of spending less than before.
Hongkongers are not the only ones taking advantage of the post-Covid opportunity to travel. However, the 1.3 million Chinese arrivals recorded in the city from January to July was still 41 per cent below 2019 figures for the same period, according to Hong Kong Tourism Bureau data, and international tourists were yet to make a noticeable return.
Lan Kwai Fong’s Zeman said mainland Chinese tourists made up about 35 per cent of the area’s customers now, compensating for a drop in expatriates. “Our business has really been very good,” he said.
He said that the type of mainland Chinese tourist had changed. “In the old days, all they wanted to do is go shopping in the shopping centres because the prices were a lot cheaper than in mainland China, especially for all the labels,” Zeman said.
Deflated consumption trends in Hong Kong indicate that travellers, like locals, are less willing to spend. Retail receipts in almost every sector were down compared to before Covid, with clothing and department store expenditure particularly depressed.
“Now that the tax [of luxury goods in mainland China] is almost equal to Hong Kong, they don’t come here. It’s a different kind of client who’s coming now. They’re much better dressed, they’re more sophisticated, they travel,” he said, adding that these tourists were looking for experiences unique to Hong Kong.
Enjoying Hong Kong nightlife ‘prohibited’
The issue with that, said many involved in the city’s nightlife economy who spoke to HKFP for this article, was that Hong Kong’s unique culture had been eroded, and in some cases, commodified.
Dai pai dongs – street food stalls that have served classic Hong Kong dishes for decades – are under threat because of government bureaucracy and no new licences have been issued since the 1970s, citing concerns over food safety and hygiene. Acknowledging their cultural importance, though, a dai pai dong will pop up at Wan Chai Harbourfront as part of the Hong Kong Night Vibes campaign offering “nostalgia” and “an enticing array of traditional Hong Kong-style street food,” according to a press release.
Similarly, neon signs – visually synonymous with the city for many foreigners – have fallen foul of regulations and been removed, with some of what remains relegated to museums. Street performers, who drew crowds but were largely disliked by local residents and business owners, were popularly sent packing from Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mong Kok in 2018. Today the once pedestrianised area is quiet, both audibly and in terms of footfall.
In Tsim Sha Tsui, street photographers who took tourists’ pictures against the backdrop of Victoria Harbour have mostly been moved on. Jumbo, one of Hong Kong’s floating restaurants fell victim to Covid restrictions then sank in the South China Sea in June 2022 as it was being towed away, sparking memes that it was a metaphor for Hong Kong’s future.
Without even a hint of irony, the Government Records Service launched an exhibition on September 15 titled, “Yesterday’s Vacation in HK,” assembling images of bygone tourist attractions that “remain a crucial part of locals’ and visitors’ memory towards Hong Kong despite having become part of history.”
Becky Lam and Mike Watt, the duo behind popular Peel Street bar Shady Acres in Central, questioned why Hong Kong did not appear on any lists of the world’s best cities for nightlife.
“Hongkongers are as creative, educated, cosmopolitan, youthful, and entrepreneurial as any other people in Asia, if not more so,” they said in emailed responses to HKFP, adding that the city had “the economic and human resources to sustain a world-class nightlife scene and then some. And yet why doesn’t it?”
The answer, Lam and Watt said, was simple. “Bit by bit, we’ve basically made key elements of nightlife all but illegal. We’ve hunted them to the point where they’re endangered or even extinct,” they said.
“There are a wide variety of individual laws and regulations which, when you add them up, essentially prohibit the city from enjoying a world-class nightlife scene,” Lam and Watt added.
“Think of the ingredients that make up a thrilling nightlife destination: live entertainment, outdoor dining, street food, night markets, public performances, bars and clubs that seemingly never close, and so on. Offering these activities legally in Hong Kong is very challenging, frequently impossible, and therefore the opportunity to have those experiences is very limited relative to other major global cities.”
Lam and Watt said they were not advocating a “free for all” and regulations were essential. “It’s a balancing act.”
Whether that act can be achieved by the government’s night economy push remains to be seen.
Black Sheep Restaurants’ Hussain seemed unconvinced. “I feel like we’re playing someone else’s game, we’re not playing to our strengths,” he said, among which were “world class hospitality, excellent experiential dining.”
Zeman, whose Lan Kwai Fong was participating in the reinvigoration efforts by offering a series of performances and discounts mid-week , said: “We just have to keep on being innovative.” Night markets offering what he called “cheap, cheap, cheap stuff” were “not the answer to our problems,” he added.
Hussain agreed that “cheap and cheerful” was not the way ahead. ” We’ve got to return back to things that made Hong Kong so glossy… We are a really dynamic city when we’re making space for arts and culture… those are the sort of events that I think we should be creating more space for.”
As for what was on the Night Vibes Hong Kong agenda, Zeman said: “I’ve talked to a lot of operators that are doing it because the government’s asked them to… I’m not sure it will bring a lot of business. It’ll bring more people out, for sure.”
He continued: “I don’t know if that’s really going to bring out spenders, you know. A lot of these people, they might go to the shopping mall, they’ll look, but they’re not really going to be shopping.”
After losing tens of thousands of residents to an emigration wave after the 2019 pro-democracy protests and the arrival of Covid-19 and the national security law the following year, recent mid-year population figures rose to 7.5 million. However, almost 250,000 of them were “mobile residents,” or those who do not live in the city full-time.
The Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute last March found that 24 per cent of respondents planned to leave the city. An immigration route introduced for Hongkongers by the UK in January 2021 had resulted in 144,500 visas issued by February, and British magazine The Spectator reported in late September that 125,000 Hongkongers had entered the UK under the scheme thus far.
Chinese University of Hong Kong cultural anthropologist Sidney Cheung pointed out that the decline in domestic spending was “much bigger than the percentage of people who are moving out,” a survey commissioned by Hong Kong-based digital life insurer Blue in 2021 highlighted other ways in which relocation plans may affect consumption habits.
It found that Hongkongers on average saved a quarter of their monthly income, with two in five savers saying they intended to emigrate, many within five years.
Zeman pointed to another factor at play in how and where residents splash their cash: Hong Kong’s role in the Greater Bay Area, a megalopolis and port hub that is critical to mainland China’s export industry spanning nine cities in Guangdong province, as well as Hong Kong and Macau.
“On the weekend… a lot of locals are going to Shenzhen,” Zeman said, referring to the city just across the border to the north of Hong Kong. Connectivity and cost – both hotels and Michelin-starred meals were “half the price,” he said – were enticing Hongkongers to spend not only in Shenzhen, but Macau and Guangzhou, too.
“It’s become what a future in the Greater Bay Area will be about,” Zeman said. “I think that’s really something we are living with at the moment.”
Hussain, though, said he was “frustrated that we’re trying to sort of compete.”
“There is this narrative about how everyone’s going up to China for the weekend, and even if that’s true – and the numbers actually show that it’s true, if you look at the data I think some 300,000 people are going up north – even if that is true, I feel we’ve got to continue to play to our strengths instead of adjusting or pivoting to something that’s not really what makes Hong Kong special,” Hussain said.
“What’s really frustrating is… this sort of V-shape recovery post-Covid that places like London, Paris, Singapore, Tokyo, other tier-one restaurant markets, other tier-one cities [had]… didn’t happen for us,” Hussain added, referring to a quick, decisive economic recovery witnessed elsewhere after Covid restrictions were dropped. “We’re still kind of languishing.”
As for whether the Hong Kong Night Vibes campaign will be successful, or if seasonal spending between the Mid-Autumn Festival and Lunar New Year will peak as per previous years, only time will tell. The Travel Industry Council has estimated that 1 million mainland Chinese tourists will visit the city during the Golden Week holiday in the first week of October.
“I think we need to know whether we are going to move back to the old model – like doing Mid-Autumn Festival or Chinese New Year at restaurants – or have we got used to the new model of ordering things and eating at home,” Cheung said.
Au acknowledged he was “more optimistic” about tourism, saying that globally, “the big picture story for tourism is improving,” and adding that he did not see “any fundamental reason why Hong Kong would be left out from that.”
However, he was less bullish on domestic spending, and whether changes catalysed by Covid could end up being permanent.
“The short answer is, we’ll see,” Au said. “Because the pandemic did something to the economy altogether. That itself, the effects of that, remain to be seen. You know, we walked out of one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world, where we basically isolated ourselves from global flows of trade and capital, and that itself took a toll,” he said.
“We will bounce back, but we’re also bouncing back at a time when there are recessionary fears in the world economy at large… whatever happens for night markets in Hong Kong, and tourism, and consumer confidence, will be driven by this bigger story.”
Additional reporting: Kyle Lam
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