Customers in a restaurant watch as masked students and protesters gather to form a human chain along a street in Hong Kong in October, 2019 | AFP via Getty Images
The jam-packed restaurant town braces for a very different Lunar New Year in the wake of months of conflicts
At around 11 p.m. on Halloween night in Lan Kwai Fong, a nightclub manager turned to a total stranger and sighed, “It’s fucked. Everything is fucked. Fucked up my whole life.” He was looking down the hill, past one nearly empty bar after another, toward a line of riot police blocking the main entrance to Hong Kong’s famous party district. On what was supposed to be one of the area’s wildest, most lucrative nights of the year, almost no one had been allowed in. As a lonely superman danced unenthusiastically atop a police barrier, the manager said he was closing up early to head home for the night. But just before turning to go, he added, “I mean, it doesn’t matter about us. The police went crazy. Beating people. But last year, everything was great. Now, it’s fucked.”
Ever since June, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest a proposed law that would have allowed Hong Kongers to be extradited to mainland China, a mix of peaceful demonstrations and violent clashes between police and protesters have meant weekly, sometimes daily pitched battles in neighborhoods throughout the territory. While many of the more dangerous confrontations can be predicted and avoided, tear gas and molotov cocktails are now common on ever-changing “front lines,” and police have shot at least two protesters with live bullets, shocking in a city where gun violence is rare.
The city has been quieter in recent weeks, but unrest in some form is almost certain to stretch further into 2020. Despite landslide electoral wins for mostly pro-protest candidates at local district levels in late November, demonstrations continue. The protesters have adopted a rallying cry — “five demands, not one less!” — that leaves no room for compromise, and on December 8, an estimated 800,000 — about 10 percent of the city’s total population — joined a march organized in part to reaffirm the protesters’ unmet demands, including an independent inquiry into police actions against protesters, amnesty for previously arrested protesters, and an end to policies that elect many government officials via select committees instead of by popular vote.
While the local government has met one demand (revoking the bill that would have allowed extradition to the mainland), and Beijing has replaced its own top official in the territory, few expect authorities to accede to all five protester demands. The annual Lunar New Year parade has already been canceled, and Hong Kongers greeted the January 1 New Year with a mass text from the police warning residents of more protests on the island: “PLEASE BEWARE OF YOUR OWN SAFETY.”
Not everyone in Hong Kong agrees on the root causes of — or solutions to — the current situation, but most in the hospitality business will tell you that months and months of protests and police actions have taken a toll. Few want to publicly broadcast the fact that their particular restaurants or hotels are half empty, but official numbers have begun to state the obvious. Earlier in the evening on Halloween, breaking-news headlines, citing both the protests and the U.S.-China trade war, declared Hong Kong had entered an economic recession for the first time since 2009.
It’s a particularly fraught time for restaurants here. An economic downturn is one thing, but street-level confrontations mean many are often literally on the front lines, whether they like it or not.
Protesters are paying attention to how restaurants opt in (or out) of the conversation. Some restaurants embrace their participation, displaying yellow stickers on front doors and exterior walls to signal their mention on the “Hongkonger’s LIHKG Pig Guide,” an offshoot of a popular online forum favored by protesters.
The site, and an accompanying map, crowdsources information about the political sensibilities of local businesses: A hot dog stand that caters to local college students in Kennedy Town features a “Lennon Wall” of pro-protest Post-it notes that all but blacks out the glass windows displaying its menus. A dessert restaurant down the street plays a looping reel of pro-protest videos on a TV beside a mannequin wearing a helmet, mask, and orange “press” jacket, and has a wall of sympathetic protester portraits. There are many, many more. Activist Laurie Wen recently published a New York Times opinion piece describing the ways the hospitality industry is feeding the protests, from comped meals to slogan-topped mooncakes.
Restaurants like these are labeled with a protester-friendly yellow. An alleged pro-police or anti-protester stance means a blue label, and possible targeting for boycotts or worse.
After the daughter of the founder of Maxim’s Catering, a local corporation that owns Starbucks in Hong Kong, was vocally critical of protesters, Starbucks branches across the city had their windows smashed and stores vandalized. The coffee chain’s locations, along with other Maxim’s partners (including Danny Meyer’s two Hong Kong Shake Shack outlets), show up as blue dots on the map. Several restaurants have the reason for their blue labeling listed as simply “Hearsay ONLY.”
At least one yellow restaurant has been targeted as well, presumably because the owner was offering free meals and vocal support to protesters, and many restaurant groups fear making any public statements at all, lest they draw the ire of the protesters, the police, or the mainland. Spokespersons from several of the city’s top groups either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for this story. Even the staff at the hot dog stand covered in pro-protester Post-Its said that while reporters were welcome to take pictures of the windows, no interviews or statements would be given.
When people in the hospitality industry here do talk, usually on condition of anonymity, they mostly say it’s complicated. For some, the situation is dire, and many restaurants have closed (the causes for closure are not always clear, as usual). Others say they’ve seen a huge increase in delivery orders, which comes with its own set of pros and cons, or reservations moving from weekends, when protesters are most active, to mid-week. A spokesperson for a famous group noted that restaurants within the security cordon at the airport seemed to be doing pretty well, theorizing that travelers were showing up earlier than usual to avoid missing flights due to protesters closing roads or the airport commuter train.
Gus Murray, the Hong Kong city manager for restaurant reservations platform Quandoo, said that while his company noticed a severe drop in bookings during the early days of the protests back in June and July, now that the protests had become somewhat regular for the city, “Western venues are doing well, but local businesses that rely heavily on Chinese tourists and locals are, as locals say, under the pump. And hotel restaurants are doing really well, because if you think about it, [travelers] are generally staying more indoors rather than going out.”
At the Chungking Mansions building in Kowloon, where protesters found solidarity with minority immigrant residents and business owners earlier last fall, an employee at a South Asian restaurant said business was up because the protesters themselves now ate there often. “They’ll be here around 4 p.m.,” he added, planning for an uptick coinciding with that day’s public protest schedule.
For many in the city, life goes on in part because protesters have mostly focused on specific areas, allowing those not participating to plan around the discord. On the weekend of November 15 through 17, as a group of protesters began holing up inside Polytechnic University before a now-infamous police siege of the school, a Hong Kong luxury magazine hosted a relatively well-attended $230-per-person “Off The Menu” food festival at a mall near Victoria Peak. The list of frequently asked questions for the event read, “Q: Will your event be cancelled due to the current political unrest in Hong Kong?” Answer: “Our event will take place at The Peak, away from areas of general disturbance.”
Still, even restaurants outside the “areas of general disturbance” are feeling the pain of massive drops in tourism. The most recent statistics show arrivals in the month of September dropped by over 1.6 million year over year, from 4.7 million visitors in 2018 to 3.1 million this year. Potential visitors to the city are understandably discouraged by coverage of tear gas and fires on the front lines, but a pro-protest observer who goes by “Hong Kong Hermit” on Twitter said that as far as he has seen, “Protesters always go out of their way to help protect, guide, and offer medical aid to tourists… No malice is felt towards non-combatants, everyone understands not all in HK can protest, or can protest all the time, and there are lots of people from elsewhere. They’re seen as civilians in a war zone, and protected as such.”
As evidence, he sent a video from another observer apparently showing tourists being given helmets and directions in late July, and one of his own that includes people rolling suitcases past protesters, firefighters, and a closed subway entrance.
Not all tourists will be convinced. Some mainland Chinese have felt especially targeted lately, and September arrivals from China were down 35 percent year over year, compared to a drop of 31 percent from other countries. With mainland Chinese tourists normally making up around 75 percent of total visitors, a good portion of the city’s hospitality industry still depends on those guests.
Whether they and other visitors will return in numbers large enough to sustain what had been a booming hospitality industry remains to be seen. Local billionaire “tycoon” Li Ka-shing has tried to stem the losses (and burnish the reputation of the upper-upper-upper class) by directing his foundation to disburse a $25.5 million fund among small restaurants. Asked if he’s hopeful, one prominent restaurateur who recently received money from the fund told me, “I believe Hongkongers’ struggle for human rights is a long hard struggle, and I think it’s going to continue for the foreseeable future.”
Andrew Genung is a writer based in Hong Kong and the creator of the Family Meal newsletter about the restaurant industry.