It's uncertain times as bar owners and bartenders grapple with the knock-on effect from months of societal unrest followed by a deadly pandemic. Victoria Chow takes the temperature of an industry at risk
The phrase “You are so lucky,” is not what you would expect to hear on having had to close a bar you built and loved for five years, but it is what I have been repeatedly reassured lately. Unreasonable landlord stories are unfortunately not news for many in the F&B industry in Hong Kong, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to many tear-soaked nights and conversations with my team that the brick-and-mortar store part of our journey had to come to an end. But never did I think that it would be the biggest blessing in disguise.
On June 9, 2019, just over a week after The Woods closed its doors on Hollywood Road, the first of many anti-extradition bill protests began and thus started the free fall of the city’s nightlife sector. The social unrest led to more bar closures—no longer able to afford the exorbitant rents without a consistent flow of customers, waves of unemployment and more deep-seated problems than meet the eye rolled in. Like kicking someone while they are down, then came the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, in January 2020. Venues now not only have to grapple with paying rent and making payroll, but have to navigate new government regulations to ensure the safety of both their employees and customers. A feeling of survivors’ guilt brought me to offer complimentary photography services to cocktail bars and employees around the city, and gave me an opportunity to hear people’s stories both of the hardship, and the hope that keeps everyone going.
Last month, as I started my walk around the Central neighbourhood to visit my industry peers, I thought back on a time barely a year ago, to a cocktail industry celebrating a major upswing. Since 2014, we had grown from a city that subsisted on vodka sodas and bottle service champagne in clubs to one that had craft cocktails on every menu, multiple internationally acclaimed bars, and home to numerous industry trendsetters. “It’s like we went from the stone age of cocktails to the golden age of cocktails in the span of a few years,” says Gagan Gurung of Tell Camellia. “I always tell my friends the Hong Kong bar scene is like a Facebook feed you have to look at everyday lest you miss an update.”
This growth can be credited to some first movers in the industry such as Lily & Bloom (now closed) and Quinary, but it really happened in tandem with an increase in craft spirit importers to Hong Kong that challenged the status quo of big players such as Pernod Ricard and Moet Hennessy. Hong Kong consumers started to see the parallels between fine dining and artisanal cocktails. Most of us that started early learned the tricks of the trade as we went, with little local references and few overseas talents to show us the ropes.
We grew fast and strong, but have always been sensitive to change. Cyclicality is built into our business models. We are hard wired for the ebbs and flows of the holiday seasons and even just a rainy day can result in an 80% drop in sales. This is the industry we know and fight for.
In 2014, we got a taste of a different scale of disruption, caused by the Occupy Central movement. I remember there was nothing that quite compared to the vastness of an empty bar floor; a vicious cycle in itself as when your first guest steps in, they either take a leap of faith and take a seat, or decide that the vibe is not right because it is empty and turn around and leave. There were many days of pacing and trying to not sound overtly enthusiastic when any guest arrived. While the crowds returned after Occupy Central was over, it never really was the same again. The success of our bars ultimately comes down to the sentiment of the people—whether they want to celebrate, gather, and spend. The Occupy Central movement sparked the opposite. As Holly Graham, an organiser of the Speed Rack bartending competition commented, “It just doesn’t feel right to be out drinking or partying while a city burns.”
The wave of anti-government protests in 2019 brought a renewed struggle of a different scale. Fear of violence and teargas in the streets, combined with public transportation hindrances acted as a de facto curfew for residents and kept away the tourists. The cocktail bars once again faced the empty floors. While venues started folding, there were more long term damages. “International investments and visits suffered and people from some of the world’s best venues have deferred business opportunities here, leading to local industry people also losing out on financial and career advancement opportunities,” explained Tom Egerton, a spirits and bar consultant of Proof & Company. Those that kept their jobs at bars said the staff morale took a major hit as inevitable political divides strained both colleague and customer relationships.
Still, as an industry, we were resilient and ready to carry on. When the bars started to see people trickle back in through the doors over Christmas 2019, there was a sense of hope. While we waited for the expected lows of the Chinese New Year holidays to be over, we were dealt with the most devastating blow yet – the coronavirus. “This is very different from the protest. During the protests, I have had to change the structure of my business and freeze hiring, but while then we were worried about business, we are now also worried about life itself,” said Sandeep Kumar, co-founder of The Wise King. Bars are in limbo, where most want to be responsible and encourage social distancing, but at the same time need to pay rent and their staff.
“We are so exposed, every night and day, serving lots of people. Some of us live with our elderly parents and kids. We are worried for them but still have to go to work to keep the bar running,” added Alex Pun, former general manager of The Woods. There are also dire financial consequences to individuals. A bar manager (who wished to remain anonymous) explained, “People who lost their jobs during the protests were hanging in there with whatever little savings they had. Now they are going to run out of their savings completely. You’ll start seeing more industry people going bankrupt. Even if things get better, it will take a long time for us to rebuild and secure our financial futures.”
The worst realisation is that some of the most successful and well regarded bars in the city are the most vulnerable, many of them being bartender owned-and-run without the backings of larger companies or shareholders. But as always, in these darkest of times is when we see community shine brightest. Every person I visited still carried a cheery disposition and flashed the brightest smiles, thankful for the sense of unity amongst the industry to carry them through. We devised ways to collaborate, shared business strategies, and shot the breeze (through our masked faces). “Lack of competition or jealousy”, “an intense bond” and “sense of togetherness” are words that everyone repeated about their peers. We are all in agreement that we have spent the better part of the decade making craft cocktails a part of Hong Kong’s landscape, and in turn put Hong Kong on the international industry map. None of us want all that effort to go to waste, and so we will keep fighting.
Yesterday's (April 2, 2020) announcement to shut down all pubs and bars for two-weeks may be the nail in the coffin for many establishments. If there is no government support provided to subsidise rent and staff salaries (as has been implied by chief executive Carrie Lam), the Hong Kong bar scene as we know it will look very different when we come out the other side of this pandemic.
Right now, the best we can all do is support our favourite bars by stocking up on any take-away cocktails they may be offering, and voicing the need to support the F&B sector through this crisis to our governing bodies. Stay safe, but don't stop drinking great cocktails!