Columns 26 May 2020

Sarah Heller MW on post-lockdown life in Hong Kong

As restaurant restrictions are lifted – but new rules imposed – is this what dining out will look like across the world?

Words by Sarah Heller MW

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Life in Hong Kong is never dull. You’ll know that much from watching the news, wherever you are in the world. Yet despite the alarmist headlines, as I see how life all across the globe has been upended to an almost unthinkable degree, I can’t help but feel a little guilty writing this column.

Hong Kong initially seemed poised to be one of the epicentres of coronavirus. At Chinese New Year, when anxiety about the exodus from Wuhan was at 11 on the scale, many of us were mentally preparing for a repeat of 2003’s SARS epidemic. And yet a few weeks into the “re-opening” of the region – something of a misnomer since many retail and hospitality businesses never actually fully closed – we seem to be approaching a resemblance of normality.

I say ‘approaching’. There are still several obvious differences. Mask-wearing has become so standardised that I’d sooner leave home barefoot than mask-less. Playgrounds are taped up like crime scenes and plexiglass barriers have carved our coffee shops into surrealist isolation cubicles. Yet since we loosened our tightest restrictions (the closing of bars, and limiting restaurant meals to groups of four), if I want to go out and grab a burger, a Michelin-starred meal or a cocktail, all I need is a clean mask, clean hands and the willingness to submit to a bit of medical admin on arrival.

With our high-rise buildings and cramped apartments, Hong Kongers are, more than most, dedicated to and in fact dependent on the hospitality sector. Here our social lives are built not around having one another over for dinner, but rather on restaurant gatherings of eight (or usually more) at a round table, sharing communal dishes. Take away our restaurants and you take away our kitchens, dining rooms and living rooms in one fell swoop.

To the post-COVID sensibility, this sounds like an epidemiological ticking time bomb. And yet… Government policies, however short of perfect, have managed to alter some of these behaviours without altogether repressing them. Gatherings are still limited to eight, temperature checks and hand sanitiser are mandatory on entering a restaurant, tables must be at least 1.5m apart and masks are to be worn unless a patron is eating or drinking (though this rule is constantly flouted). Having managed thus far to keep our death-rate to an almost implausibly low four (from just over 1,060 confirmed cases), enthusiasm for dining out is once more running high.

Pondi's proximity to residential buildings has resulted in an unprecedented surge in business

There is no doubt, however, that the hospitality sector has suffered – many businesses already battered by reduced Chinese tourism and last year’s protests have shuttered permanently. Wine businesses that mainly service the ‘on-trade’ sector have been gutted as a result, squeezed by falling sales, bad debt and landlords who have been slow to offer major rent reductions. My friend and erstwhile colleague Debra Meiburg MW produced a study about the crisis’ impact on wine businesses to help lobby the government for more support. She found that 60% of businesses were expecting to make staff redundant if the situation didn’t improve in the next month, and half expected trade to drop by over 50% in the second quarter.

On the other hand, I’ve heard from wine merchants catering to private clients that they’ve been doing a brisk trade; one reported that she’d had her busiest April ever, with “drinking wines” (£30 and under) almost sold out. Alan Kwok of Deco Wines told me that, because people weren’t traveling and were drinking at home, his private client business had been doing better than ever.

The loosened restaurant restrictions are now dampening that effect, but on the flipside, there are glimmers of hope for hospitality too. Derek Li, group sommelier of JIA group, said that Mother’s Day week in mid-May marked an uptick that hasn’t abated. Camille Glass, co-owner of two of my favourite neighbourhood restaurants, Brut! and Pondi, reported an unprecedented surge in business thanks to their proximity to densely-populated residential buildings. Restaurant groups seem to have capitalised on the demand for home delivery too, through smart innovation. Black Sheep, a leader in the field, has upped its delivery service “GO” with quality packaging and clever touches like QR codes linked to branded Spotify playlists.

And what about Hong Kong’s numerous private wine groups? The Hong Kong Wine Society (HKWS), on whose committee I serve, which had generally stopped running events while restrictions were tighter, is typical in now coming back to life. The first rounds of in-person events since the re-opening have received enthusiastic uptake and we’ve quickly been able to pack the calendar back to the usual one event per week.

Black Sheep's delivery service GO has added QR codes linked to Spotify playlists to their packaging

As for me, I’m adjusting to the new normal; while I would, ordinarily, be leading events once or twice a month in China or elsewhere in Asia, and every month or two in Europe or the US, I now leave the tightly circumscribed ambit of my apartment and office only occasionally. The wine brand and glassware range I have stakes in have suffered major setbacks.

That said, online teaching has gotten a massive shot in the arm and I’m getting better at convincing myself that I’m talking to a sizeable, rapt audience rather than a screen with my own face on it. Writing, thankfully, can be done anywhere, and I’ve been able to dedicate a lot more time to my art (a previous life that’s gradually taking over the current one), not to mention spending more time with my immediate family. Ultimately, I feel lucky to have this degree of flexibility, and extremely lucky to be in a comparatively safe environment. But with the recent re-ignition of protests downtown, like everyone else in the world I’m forced to take a “wait-and-see” approach. Like I say, life in Hong Kong is never dull.

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