It’s 7:30 PM on a Saturday and yet Hong Kong is quiet. It was late April and the coronavirus had killed the city's social life but in a nondescript alley on Hong Kong Island, a Filipino bar stayed open.
Inside, 63-year-old owner Julie Mangrobang sat hunched over a Candy Crush game. She usually greets customers with a smile, but her lips are now often hidden behind a surgical mask. Her business, Junel's Restobar in the Sai Ying Pun neighbourhood, serves a bevy of classic Filipino dishes: adobo (chicken and pork in soy sauce and vinegar), pancit bihon (rice noodles), and crispy sisig (sizzling pig head), their best-seller among Hong Kongers. But it's not the food that made regulars out of casual customers — it was the karaoke. Even though Junel’s was tucked away in a back alley, people searched for it. Unlike most karaoke bars in Hong Kong, where people are isolated in private booths, Junel’s allowed customers to sing as other diners ate.
That all changed on April 1, when the Hong Kong government ordered the closure of entertainment venues, including “karaoke activities in eating premises and clubhouses.” Seven locals who gathered in a karaoke lounge the day before had tested positive for COVID-19. While restaurants could remain open, the new policies limited the number of people gathering in tables to four.
Julie’s restaurant still sees about 70 to 80 diners on the weekends, but it’s not like how it used to be, when people from different countries, social classes, and races would have their arms around each other while performing the greatest hits. Groups used to mosh it out on the dance floor. Others would sing along with bottles of Red Horse beer in hand. But Julie says no local nor expat has come to sing in the past weeks — and the only thing making noise in the bar now is an iPod shuffle plugged into the speakers.
"They're bored without the karaoke," Julie told VICE. "And even if they wanted to sing, we didn't want them to."
She does not want her customers to catch the virus by sharing a microphone, so she stopped offering karaoke services in compliance with government orders.
Hong Kong nightlife changed dramatically after restaurants and bars closed due to the one-two punch of last year’s pro-democracy protests and the ongoing pandemic, but Julie still keeps her doors open for the sake of her loyal customers, especially those who previously helped her avoid shutting down.
"If it’s not for them, I won’t even be here," she said.
Last year, customers raised funds to help Junel’s relocate after learning that its original building will be demolished. And while many other establishments were forced to shut down because of the protests, Junel’s stayed afloat because of support from expats and Filipinos who love to sing.
According to Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department, there are over 200,000 Filipino domestic workers in the city. Thousands dedicate their Sundays, their only mandatory day off, to hanging out in the streets where they bring portable microphones to sing Filipino pop music and retro ballads. Julie was one of them. She started working in Hong Kong in 1984, first as a domestic worker for four years, then a restaurant server for over ten. She eventually opened Junel’s with a friend in 2008. They were an instant hit with the Filipino community and eventually drew in locals and expats.
Most karaoke bars in Hong Kong are expensive, with a door charge of anywhere between HK$179 ($23) and HK$300 ($38.50). Food usually costs extra. Junel’s is different. For the price of HK$3 ($0.40) a song, diners can belt their hearts out in front of a crowd, choosing songs from catalogues as heavy as a Bible. Everyone cheers you on, no matter how good or bad you sound. It’s like a little piece of the Philippines’ street side karaoke bars.
This experience was what drew in Alison Tan, a 29-year-old art director who moved to Hong Kong from Pennsylvania, to Junel's.
“I felt like I was being let in on an amazing secret," she said.
Even the way Alison got close to Julie seems right off a Manila karaoke bar. In 2016, she got involved in a brawl in Junel's former spot, just a few blocks away from where it currently stands. Her husband got into a fight with a British couple who had gatecrashed their party and wordlessly snatched the microphone out of their friend's hand.
“Punches were getting thrown. In the tussle, as we’re all trying to pull them apart, he knocks over their pot of sunflowers. And the vase falls on the ground and breaks," she said.
Their group got kicked out that night, but she apologised to Julie and her husband with a cake and fruits the next day.
"They just laughed," Alison said.
Francesca Ayala, a 37-year-old Filipino working in public relations in Hong Kong, brings her friends to Junel’s because of the food. But she said that whenever one of her friends puts on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it’s as if she’s transported to the Philippines in an instant.
“That’s my family karaoke song,” she said. “There’s no particular lyric, but it’s just the fact that it’s a song that needs to be sung by a group. And every time my family and I do karaoke, that’s our song. Everyone’s screaming over each other, the different parts and the different voices, the different harmonies."
When Julie received the eviction notice in April 2019, Alison started a fundraiser to help the business relocate. Francesca, meanwhile, used her PR skills to help promote the fundraising event, a farewell costume party in the original location. That night, they raised HK$55,809 ($7,200) from bar regulars and visitors, and over HK$70,000 ($9,000) in micro-loans from Julie’s friends and patrons. This allowed them to reopen in September of the same year.
Junel's continued to take a beating during the protests that rocked Hong Kong last year. Julie said that in November, the height of the demonstrations, their earnings were down by 40 percent compared to previous months. And just as it was recovering from the protests, the coronavirus pandemic struck Hong Kong in January.
But Julie said her business is getting back on track. The Hong Kong government announced in March that it will provide HK$80,000 ($10,300) each to small business owners to combat the economic downturn. Julie’s landlord also lowered rent by HK$10,000 ($1,300) to help ease monthly dues. The government is now relaxing social distancing measures and karaoke bars are set to reopen on May 28. But protests are coming back too. Since China proposed a national security law threatening the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, protesters started demonstrations again.
Julie seems unfazed by all this. She still opens her restaurant every day, even if no one steps in, and continues to accept party bookings, even though many of them cancel. She said she still has plenty of customers calling, asking when they could come back.
"They're just waiting for the social distancing to ease, at least up to eight people allowed to gather," she said. "They say, 'We really miss Junel’s.'"
Julie said it helps that they are not on the main roads for protests to disturb. As for battling the coronavirus, she said that all it takes is a “fighting spirit” to stay open. She knows her customers will return, as they did so in the past.
"Coming here as a domestic helper, I never realised that my life was going to be like this in Hong Kong."
“In a good way. [I never thought] that many people will love me and will support me,” Julie said.
It was 7:30 PM. on a Saturday. Julie, donning a frilly yellow dress and a surgical mask craned over her phone again outside the bar. A new round of Candy Crush began, but her face darted up regularly to look at anyone passing through the alley, in hopes of inviting them inside.
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This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.