Tears well up in Fong Siu-ying’s eyes as she talks about her strong connection to Stanley Market, the tourist spot on the south side of Hong Kong Island that has been selling souvenirs, from paintings and postcards to T-shirts and teapots, since the 1970s.
“I was born in Stanley and I live in Stanley. This is my home,” she says.
Fong has worked at the market for more than 30 years. For the past eight years she has run T. Wong Art Gallery, which opened more than 40 years ago and is the market’s oldest established shop. Its wooden and brass Buddha statues, singing bowls, calligraphy brushes and carvings – some original, some reproductions – are a visual feast. But even with heavily reduced prices, the items are stuck on the shelves.
Business has never been so bad, she says, as anti-government protests and fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought incoming flights to a virtual standstill, keep tourists away.
“So many shops have closed and some days not one person will walk through my door,” says Fong, on a sunny Friday afternoon. In normal times, such weather would have attracted hundreds of tourists. Today, just a couple of people wander the lanes.
“Business was bad during Sars [the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic] in 2003, but it lasted from March to June, and then it was back to normal. This has no end in sight,” says Fong, her voice cracking. “I have an 85-year-old mother to support as well as people who work in my shop … I have no idea what will happen if I have to close. I really want to keep this shop.”
For many shop owners, survival hangs partly on striking deals with their landlord. Some, like Fong, are lucky. Her “kind landlord” gave her a rent reduction.
Debby Hung, who has run tea vendor My Cup Of Tea for more than a decade, says her rent was cut by more than 50 per cent. But Hung’s friend who sold suitcases in the market was not so lucky. “She had to close two shops.”
Louis Wun has been working in the market for 20 years, selling bags in his latest shop for the past eight.
“My landlord is mean,” says Wun. “He has not even given me a 10 cent reduction in rent and I’m locked into my contract until February. I can’t escape. I’ve been bleeding money since June, when the protests took a toll on tourist numbers. I’ve had no good days since then; that’s almost one year,” he says.
The savings he accrued over the past 10 years are all gone. “The stress is killing me,” he says.
Wun says the HK$80,000 (US$10,000) one-off cash handout he received under the government’s HK$5.6 billion financial aid package aimed at boosting the economy – which has been ravaged by the virus, social unrest, and a protracted trade war between China and the United States – didn’t last him long, which is not surprising considering some tenants are paying HK$60,000 in monthly rent.
His sales are “almost zero”, he says, and the few customers who venture into his shop often haggle over the already heavily discounted goods.
“These bags, look at the price tags,” he says, pointing to rows of genuine leather handbags. “Most are reduced by a third; a leather bag for HK$100? You can’t even buy a cloth bag for that price – and people want a cheaper price?”
He says when people start bargaining, he puts on a mask, and not the surgical kind that is now widely sold at the market as shopkeepers diversify stock to appeal to locals who are now the customer base. Wun says he has to put on a “happy mask”.
“I have to smile and be happy with my customers, but really I’m crying inside. I have to cut prices further and not show them any emotion. But when I’m alone, I cry a lot,” says the 32-year-old father of a nine-year-old girl and a boy aged 13.
At the other end of the market, another shopkeeper shares a similar story. “Just call me Bong – everyone knows me as that,” he says.
Bong has been working in the market for 30 years. For the past decade he has sold T-shirts, many bearing the face of Hong Kong martial arts icon Bruce Lee. With no tourists, he has tried to appeal to local customers by selling items such as traditional Japanese-style curtains bearing dog patterns.
Instead of receiving a rent cut, Bong says he was handed a rent demand notice from the lawyers of his landlord, an investment group. “This is what they sent me,” he says, pulling a legal document from a drawer. “No sympathy, just legal action.”
In the past couple of weeks, the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed, with some measures gradually relaxed to allow social life to resume and businesses impacted by social distancing policies to return to normal. But Bong says the government is blind if it thinks this will help businesses reliant on the battered tourism industry.
The number of tourists visiting Hong Kong in April plummeted almost 100 per cent year on year, with just 4,100 arrivals for the month (on average about 130 a day) compared with 5.57 million in April last year, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
In the first four months of 2020, tourist arrivals dropped 85.3 per cent, compared with the same period last year, to 3.49 million.
“We are going to die because there are no tourists,” says Bong. He is hoping travellers from the region will start arriving soon. But he says it’s those from the United States, Australia and Europe that he is hoping to see.
“I don’t think the situation in the US and Europe is good, and with the protests continuing, I don’t see a bright future. I can’t rely on local trade. I see some local customers on weekends but they just walk around and window shop.”
The picture is no brighter on the other side of Hong Kong’s harbour. It’s a sodden Monday night at Kowloon’s Temple Street Night Market, and the open-air bazaar is a shadow of its former self. It used to be shoulder to shoulder with tourists picking up a reminder of their visit to the city.
The once-bustling market is also part of the city’s pop culture, and has had cameo appearances in movies including the gritty 1990 classic Queen of Temple Street, 1992 crime drama The Prince of Temple Street and Stephen Chow Sing-chi’s 1996 comedy The God of Cookery.
Tonight, Joe Wong is one of a handful of vendors with stalls open. “Look around. You can see that about 95 per cent of stalls are shut. Business is so bad, the worst I have seen in 10 years,” he says, adding that some friends have shut their shops in the market to find work elsewhere.
“On a good day, before the protests and virus, I could sell HK$5,000 worth of items in a day. Now I’m lucky if sales reach HK$400,” says Wong, whose electronics stall stocks items ranging from phone cables and cases, to headphones, microphones and selfie sticks.
“I’m opening earlier in the day, around midday instead of 5pm, because no tourists are coming at night. Luckily, some locals still buy from me, unlike many stalls here that only sell items that appeal to tourists. You know, stuff like the ‘I Love Hong Kong’ fridge magnets.”
There’s no need to hear the stories of vendors to understand their plight. As they sit quietly on their stools waiting for customers, sadness and desperation is etched on their faces.
One stallholder selling paintings, some featuring Hong Kong’s neon-lit streets, looks up and gives the “two thumbs down” sign.
Wong says that at the end of each day the vendors who have bothered to open gather to talk about their day. The conversation, he says, is always the same: “Zero sales today.”
When you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice, you may know that your society is doomed