A deeper shade of virus

April 01, 2020 12:04
The virus outbreak and rental burden are threatening the existence of small and medium scale businesses in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters

Yes, I know that the attempts to contain Covid-19 are devastating the restaurant, hotel and bar business in Hong Kong but the virus is just the final straw that is breaking the back of the hospitality business.

Before that, the lunatic fringe of the protest movement was scaring people from venturing out of an evening, lest they encounter some of the vandals at work.

But both these forces were operating on a business model that contained the seeds of its own systemic virus: property developers’ untrammeled greed.

Whereas Covid-19 will eventually die out and the protest movement segue into a new and, hopefully, non-vandalising phase, there is no prospect of a remedy for the cancer of avaricious Hong Kong landlords.

The majority of the bars and restaurants operate on a thin profit margin, always susceptible to the inexhaustible appetite of the property owners for yet more profit.

The curse of the hospitality business is success. Whether on a straight lease or profit-sharing engagement, the landlord will squeeze the enterprise until the pips pop out.

Instead of enabling businesses to thrive, their modus operandi is to leech onto them until they are totally disabled.

Truly, the tycoons are Hong Kong’s systemic curse.

Just like the worst of cancers, they eat away from the inside, destroying all the indigenous, family run and small businesses, driving them away with their insatiable rapacity.

How many remember the wonderful China Tee Club that used to occupy the first floor in Pedder Building? Its devotees could never have imagined that this characterful icon, redolent of Hong Kong’s earlier days, would fall victim to naked cupidity.

It was a meeting place for those who valued good food and colourful service from its black-and-white film quality staff, all in a 1920’s atmospheric ambience.

Even the late David Tang was unable to prevent the landlord from kicking them out, only to be replaced by a short-lived fashion outlet willing to pay millions of US$.

How long has the property stood empty?

Ganga’s, the basement Indian restaurant on Wyndham Street favoured by generations of curry lovers, had to yield to the impossibility of making economic sense in 2019.

More recently, HongKong Land was deaf to the pleas of countless people who found happiness in Grappa’s Cellar in Jardine House.

Home to jazz enthusiasts, swing dancers, host to charitable events like Operation Santa Claus and preferred venue of a wide variety of local and foreign musicians and performers, Grappa’s was forced out, in favour of a food mall.

Grappa’s was the premier café-dance-theatre on Hong Kong island. Again, a meeting place for those of us with a sense of the joy in music and fun.

Now Tsui Wah on Wellington Street has closed. Unbelievable.

Famous for its signature fish ball noodles, condensed milk bun and the best choi sum in Hong Kong, as well as an eclectic menu of dishes all at prices that made it accessible to the hundreds of people in and around the vicinity, it could no longer function under the rental burden of its three floors.
Over the recent months it became increasingly apparent that economies were being made: fewer staff, only one cashier, often closing off the top floor, but the quality of the food never suffered.

Walk along Wyndham Street from Ice House Street to the junction with Lyndhurst Terrace and count the number of bars and restaurants that have closed, indefinitely.

As one small restaurant owner told me, “Two more months and I will have to close down. I have paid millions to my landlord for twenty years and all he offered me was 2 months at a 10% discount.”

The government wants people to stay at home but on what will the gig economy workers survive, once thrown out of their jobs?

When small and medium scale employers have landlords with their hands around their necks, employees are the first to go.

Ensconced comfortably on their obscene land bank cushions, the property developers have been wringing the life out of Hong Kong for years, now their insatiable voracity is reaching down to rob the people of Hong Kong of their livelihood at a time when a dumbcluck government is asking everyone to work together.

Instead of tinkering around with wholly inadequate handouts, this government ought to have mandated a total freeze on rentals, until near normality is resumed.

It is pointless looking to Legco for solutions, it can’t even manage to conduct its business by SKYPE or Zoom.

Just to illustrate how ridiculous Legco is, the United Nations Security Council has met and passed resolutions without a physical gathering. So how come our pathetic little village council cannot get its act together?

The judiciary is at a standstill because there has been no legislation to enable the courts to conduct their business by telephone, video or other electronic media.

There is no excuse for this. In the UK this was introduced years ago and all that Legco had to do was adapt their existing legislation.

I believe that Hong Kong will come out of all this and spring back into action, Hong Kongers are amazingly resilient. But what will remain of the small and medium scale businesses that provide employment for the majority?

Neither the giants of business, i.e., the major property developers sitting on their bloated backsides, nor the dead duck government appear to have either the wit or the will to act to protect and preserve Hong Kong’s economy.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
If the virus don’t get you
The landlords must.”

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Queen's Counsel