On a regular Friday night, the streets of Hong Kong’s nightlife district Lan Kwai Fong (LKF, for short) are loud, dirty, and packed with thousands of partygoers flooding its establishments until the morning light.
For the past two months, however, a walk down D'Aguilar Street has been emblematic of the dramatic effects of the prolonged political unrest and coronavirus outbreak the city has been experiencing. The drag’s countless bars, clubs, and infamous 7-Elevens contributed to the neighbourhood’s reputation as an all-year outdoor party, but today, they’re all nearly empty.
It’s the same for nearby SoHo, where the long queues and music outside hip restaurants are nowhere to be seen or heard. The streets are desolate as events were cancelled and some establishments permanently closed.
“When the protests were happening, we still had at least die-hard customers coming — at least 70 percent of the revenue — but now, we are left with 30 percent,” Yuri Tomiyama, manager of the popular Ozu bar on Hollywood Road, told VICE.
“Back then, westerners would still come, but the virus is now affecting everyone, and if you look at this block, we have no more neighbours because their bars did not survive.”
Yuri said that 10 places have closed on his block, and many more around the district.
As of Wednesday, March 11, 129 people have been infected and three have died from COVID-19 in Hong Kong. While the number is relatively low compared to other places in Asia and Europe, Hong Kong businesses have been suffering for months because of last year’s pro-democracy protests.
The rallies, which often turned violent, created a collective distrust in authorities among many Hong Kongers. This has extended to more people amid the ongoing pandemic, as many think the government has failed to contain the coronavirus.
Many fear an outbreak similar to SARS in 2003, which killed hundreds of people in Hong Kong and mainland China, so people have not been going out unless necessary. The first to go were their nights out.
“This period is so bad for business and I know of a lot of places that have not been able to afford rent for the past four months,” Tomiyana said. “There is also no trust whatsoever in the government or the police, which doesn’t help at all.”
Ashley Lee, an account manager at a branding studio, has decided to cut down on going out at night since Chinese New Year, and insists on confined late-night gatherings in her or her friends’ apartments.
“The general consensus is to stay at home, avoid large gatherings, and keep up with hygiene. And since late-night hangouts have always been associated with drinking, I’ve made an even more conscious decision to avoid it,” she said.
“Alcohol lowers inhibitions, which is why in LKF, past midnight, you will notice a significant decline of people wearing a mask.”
According to a recent report by the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department, the revenue of Hong Kong’s food and beverage sector decreased by 5.9 percent in 2019. The last three months of the year, the height of the protests, saw a 14.3 percent plunge from the same period in 2018, the biggest drop since 2003.
This year, the coronavirus outbreak is further testing the industry’s resilience.
“At least, during the protests, some people were still willing to go out, they just avoided the affected areas,” explained Mac Ying Yan, regional manager of shisha bar Boba Bear Hong Kong.
“With the virus, people tend to avoid being outside if it’s unnecessary, and it's now rare to see the streets filled with crowds.”
According to Damien Dietrich, a French financial consultant working in the city, many are scared to go out and have significantly changed their habits because many expats have continued to travel and don’t regularly wear masks.
“Way less people are going out, including myself,” he said.
Because of the protests and now, the virus, many of the expats and exchange students who frequented areas like LKF and SoHo have left.
It’s not just foreigners, locals are more careful too.
“Many are still very much committed to staying at home with perpetual fear of human-to-human contact, including many of my friends,” Lee said.
What is clear walking around LKF and SoHo on a late winter weekend, when the weather is getting warmer and the so-called “golden period” for the hospitality industry begins, is that most establishments just want to survive the toughest challenge they’ve encountered in years.
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