The fishball snack business run by Halina Tam Siu-wan, winner of the 1994 Miss Hong Kong Pageant, has just expanded into East Tsim Sha Tsui from its first foothold in Causeway Bay.
It has been more than four years since Halina’s last screen appearance, as she decided to wrap up her 18-year acting and emceeing career at TVB in 2012, yet when she greeted patrons at her snack shop, people instantly crowded the place taking selfies with their still beloved TV drama idol.
And, many of the fans are more than happy to try Halina’s fishballs. The business is obviously booming.
Halina grew up in a public housing estate and when she started her snack venture two years ago, she picked fishballs, the most common street food for the grassroots.
Hong Kong people love fishballs.
A bowl of curry fishballs with pork rinds and radish, between meals or on the go, can be heavenly, without burning a big hole in the pocket.
It’s said that Hongkongers eat no less than 3.75 million fishballs, or 55 tons, every day. That translates into 1.3 billion fishballs every year.
No wonder numerous snack express outlets are springing up in town, even inside MTR stations.
Halina’s shop sells a set of fishballs, usually six pieces, for HK$10, eight pieces of fish siu mai for HK$15 and a bowl of bean noodles “shark’s fin” soup for HK$20.
She says her shop at Jardine’s Bazaar in Causeway Bay normally sells 3,000 fishballs per day. The unit cost is around 30 cents, which means the daily net profit from selling fishballs alone can be HK$4,100.
The business model is to compensate the thin margin with good sales.
Still, the key determinant of profit is location. Halina’s shop is not far from the SOGO department store, the focal point of pedestrian flow, and there is a minibus stop opposite her place.
Halina must thank the headlong plunges in rents that have swept the city amid lackluster retail performance, otherwise she couldn’t have ventured into the city’s prime commercial precincts like Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui, where the average rent was among the world’s highest at the peak of the retail bonanza.
She had waited for a year before the rent of a shop at New Mandarin Plaza in East Tsim Sha Tsui dropped by half to HK$90,000 per month.
“Now I’m looking for a suitable spot in Central, where there are very few cheap takeaway food outlets,” says Halina.
Fishball business can be almost immune to economic upheavals as they are so cheap and popular among locals.
When the city’s tourism and retail sectors were at their zenith, husband-and-wife eateries and small businesses were squeezed out by chain stores and luxury brands, but now the seemingly bleak climate has meant a rare chance for a comeback: snack stalls and dessert and custard shops are now taking up vacant space in prime locations left by jewelry stores, pharmacies and luxury goods companies.
The same is happening in Mong Kok.
Dirt is gathering at the doors of Sin Tat Plaza, the dominant exchange for smartphones and other electronic gadgets in town where rent once fetched up to HK$350,000 per month for a tiny shoebox space.
But now many, including those from the mainland, have opted not to upgrade their smartphones and tablets while the economy is still in the doldrums.
Once again, snack shops are invading Sin Tat. A prime shop on the ground level is now occupied by a fishball and siu mai outlet after the rent was slashed by a fourth.
Two blocks away from Sin Tat, Argyle Centre, known for its cluster of trendy fashion shops in its heyday, has halved the rent to attract restaurants, and the lowest level is just HK$33,000 per month.
Street food and catering services for the masses will never die as the demand is perpetual.
“You may not want to splurge a lot on a Dior handbag but fishballs are something you don’t have to forgo,” said a marketing professor at the Chinese University.
This article appeared in the June issue of the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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