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How Protests and Coronavirus Are Impacting Hong Kong’s Vibrant Food Scene

Writer Andrew Genung discusses the view from the ground on the Eater Digest podcast

Crowds fill the streets in front of a police line
Protests in Hong Kong last fall
Andrew Genung

1.6 million fewer tourists visited Hong Kong in September 2019 than visited in September 2018. This was a few months into the ongoing, often violent protests in one of the world’s most vibrant restaurant cities. Restaurateurs on the ground report that a bad situation just turned “devastating” as the fear of coronavirus sweeps Hong Kong, and as airlines cancel flights to and from the city. This week on Eater’s Digest, the Hong Kong-based writer behind the newsletter Family Meal, Andrew Genung, discusses the impact of virus and the protests on the restaurant community.

Then we get into the biggest food stories of the week, including food-themed baseball hats, mourning celebrities by visiting their favorite restaurants, and the latest shenanigans with Grubhub and Seamless.

Listen and subscribe to Eater’s Digest on Apple Podcasts:

Amanda Kludt: Maybe do a quick, 30 second, where did the protests come from?

Andrew Genung: Oh, 30 seconds. Got to go back to the Opium Wars for this.

So back in February, two years ago, a man and his girlfriend went to Taiwan, only the man came back. Turned out he had murdered his girlfriend there, and the Hong Kong government could not extradite him back to Taiwan, because they didn’t have an extradition law.

So Hong Kong got the idea that they would get an extradition law. Because it was Taiwan, they also wanted to include mainland China. Hong Kong-er do not believe very strongly in the fairness of the mainland Chinese justice system. They have their own justice system. So they decided that that wasn’t a very good idea.

The government said, “Screw you, it’s still a good idea.” And people took the streets. And we had millions of people in the streets of Hong Kong starting in June of last year, and it basically continued and got worse and worse until they were sort of pitch battles and tear gas everywhere.

Amanda Kludt: And live bullets fired at one point.

Andrew Genung: There were a few live bullets, which in Hong Kong is incredibly rare. And a couple of people died, not from being shot as far as our call.

Daniel Geneen: But it became a proxy protest, right, for the larger state of politics in Hong Kong.

Andrew Genung: Hong Kong is due in a few years, in 2047, to revert to mainland Chinese rule. And that is something that, when it first came into being in 1999 or 1997, they said it’ll be 50 years until you go back to Chinese rule. And everyone thought, well, China will be very different by then. It’s opening up economically. And what’s really happened is now as Xi Jinping is in power, and China has gone full authoritarian on its own citizenry. A lot of Hong Kongers are very nervous that that’s the way they’re going to go.

There are some pro-Beijing Hong Kongers, obviously, who are, embraced the mainland and think this is a great idea. But the protesters fall in that camp of, this is not so great and we’re a little nervous.

Daniel Geneen: So why don’t we start with the effects that the protest had on restaurants, and then we’ll get to Coronavirus. That’s the second piece.

Amanda Kludt: Is it true that as many as 10% of the population have been in the streets protesting?

Andrew Genung: Hong Kong has, I think, a little over 7 million people. And there have been, by estimates of protestors and outside observers, at least 800,000 to a million people at some of these protests. So yeah, it’s been huge. And the consequence for restaurants is, these protests go right down main drags in downtown central business district.

And obviously, people aren’t going out to ... I mean, they shut down the subway lines, they shut down the taxis, obviously. So for me and my family we’re like, “Well, I guess we’re not going to central tonight, unless we’re going to protest.” Because we could not get home. There’s a chance we won’t be able to get home. We’ve got small kids. And so a lot of people were doing that, and restaurants are suffering.

The other thing that’s happening is, as people go out to restaurants, there are these pitch battles. So groups of protesters will just pop up in random places and tear gas will start getting fired, and you’ll be at a restaurant and you’re like, “Ah, okay, this isn’t great.” And people are just staying away and not dining out because they’re nervous that that’s going to happen while they’re there.

Amanda Kludt: And there’s also this thing where restaurants are identifying, whether they like it or not, as pro or anti protestors, right? There’s a guide or an app that will tell you which side they’re on.

Andrew Genung: Absolutely. So there’s an online forum. It’s sort of a decentralized protest, there’s no clear leadership. There are a few people, but mostly it’s run by online forums. And one of these forums started a guide, a map. Or an offshoot of the forum started a map that labels restaurants yellow, which is pro-protesters. That’s sort of the color that the protests of embraced, or blue, which would be pro-police, pro mainland.

And depending on which side you’re on, you could be...

Daniel Geneen: And then how good the food is how good this, how good the service is.

Andrew Genung: No, not at all. Not at all. Not included in the roundup.

So you could be targeted by other side. And there’s a whole thing now where there’s a yellow economy. So people saying we’re only going to dine at yellow restaurants, and we should all support the yellow restaurants because those are true hong Kongers and Hong Kong restaurants.

Amanda Kludt: And these are restaurants that, what, put up posters of the protesters, or fed the protesters?

Andrew Genung: It could be lots of things. They fed the protesters, they put up protests. Some of them sell gas mass as a side business. They just say, you’re all welcome. And really, I think it’s almost more, they’re not the blue restaurants, which are people who either, I mean, it can be as little as we invited a police officer in for a meal one day, or one of the founder’s daughters is very pro-mainland and has made statements against the protesters, that kind of thing.

Amanda Kludt: Well, and then Shake Shack got wrapped up in this too, right?

Andrew Genung: Well Shake Shack is, in Hong Kong, owned or managed or both by Maxim’s Catering, which is the big group that runs Starbucks also there, and is ... The owner’s daughter made a bunch of statements against the protesters. So Starbucks, a lot of Starbucks had windows broken, vandalized all over.

Shake Shack is, they have two locations and both are in really fancy malls. So I think that they have been sort of buffered, they’re not on the street, so they haven’t been targeted as such. And maybe people just don’t know them as much as Starbucks being associated with maxims. But they’re definitely blue on the map.

Amanda Kludt: They’re on the blue map.

Daniel Geneen: Have you heard from restaurateurs that you know, that they’ve been marked blue, and have you heard anyone trying to negotiate or be like, “Hey, this is an accidental blue marking, and I’m actually yellow, or I’m actually neutral.”

Andrew Genung: I don’t know any blue ones but there are, on the map if you look, it’s interesting. There’s rationale given for why they’re labeled each color.

And it can be as little as hearsay. So, I don’t read the Cantonese, but there’s loose English translation underneath and it’ll say, “Hearsay, I was in there one day and the owner said something about, the police are okay,” or, “I hope the police get through this,” or something.

It’s a little dangerous in that respect.

Daniel Geneen: Are any restaurants able to remain neutral? Can you see that? I guess it’s just whether or not you’re on the list or not, right?

Andrew Genung: There is a green label I think, but I’m not quite sure how you get on that, because if people ask you, are you pro-protest or pro-police and you say, “Oh, I’m just staying neutral,” protesters, at least the hardliners, take that as a sorry. And police obviously, are the same way. It’s hard to believe you’re not picking a side.

Daniel Geneen: What about restaurants that are trendy, sceney restaurants? Are they invested in this kind of thing too, or are they able to stay out of the game?

Andrew Genung: Well, I think everyone’s, on that level, especially ex-pat focused restaurants and restaurants owned by ex-pats, I think they’re really mostly trying to stay out of the game. I don’t know of any that are aggressively pro-protest or aggressively pro-mainland. Maybe there are some. And if you ... For this article, when I talked to everyone’s PR people and I emailed around, I texted with restaurateurs, it was like, “I’m not going to. I can’t. I’m not going to make any statements. We just don’t want any part of articles about this.”

Amanda Kludt: Right, they don’t want to be included.

Andrew Genung: For a couple of reasons. They also don’t want to have the thing where, you say no one’s at the party. So you’re like, “Hey I heard business is down,” and they’re like, “I don’t want to talk about that.”

Amanda Kludt: They don’t want to say business is down, or the restaurant’s half full.

Andrew Genung: Right, exactly. They want to say, come on.

Daniel Geneen: I’m assuming that the business is very slow right now? You’re actually seeing some restaurants closing down. Are they closing down permanently or temporarily, or what’s happening?

Andrew Genung: I mean restaurant closure, as you guys know, is always ... Causality is difficult to prove. But definitely during the protests, there were waves of restaurant closings, and this sort of moves us into the virus a little bit, because I talked to a restaurant last night, and I asked him how things are going now that the virus has taken hold. Or, taken hold is the wrong word. Mentally taken hold of a lot of people.

And he said during the protests, business was already off 20% or more, and now they’re looking at another 30% off. And so he said, basically you’ve got to be a great operator, or be located far away from the centers of things, or you’re going to be having a lot of problems.

Amanda Kludt: I wanted to bring up this stat, that in 2018 there were 4.7 million visitors to Hong Kong, and it went down to 3.1 million in 2019.

So already, this is before Coronavirus, and 1 million drop in tourists.

Andrew Genung: It’s been massive. And you can tell on the streets, you can tell that it feels a little less crowded than a lot of those places. Central, down by the ferries, just places where normally there’s loads of tourists rolling around and towards groups.

And I talked to people who run towards groups who say the same thing, and they’re just constantly fielding questions like, “Should I come? Is it safe?” And I think, initially I sent in my newsletter, I said that it was still safe, and you should totally still come.

Because a lot of the stuff is very predictable. Yes, you could be at a restaurant and there could be tear gas nearby. But mostly you can just walk away. It’s not like you’re in a war zone war zone, where suddenly you’re going to be swept up in conflict. You have to have a little bit of street smarts, but you can still very much manage the situation with the protests.

Amanda Kludt: So now with Coronavirus, what is the situation? You were on a vacation or a trip here to the US, and that’s when it kind of all blew up. And now the flights are getting canceled.

Andrew Genung: So it’s Chinese New Year. So a lot of people were leaving Hong Kong already, as they do, and the city sort of empties out. And there was just a little bit of a murmur about this Wuhan virus that was coming out.

And then over the last few weeks, obviously, it’s just gone a little crazy. And Wuhan in particular, and Hu Bei Province, and then we started having cases in Hong Kong. We had our first fatality in Hong Kong two or three days ago, confirmed, and I think now a lot of places have locked down on mainland China. But I think Hong Kong is starting to get swept up in that lockdown.

So I think the Philippines banned flights from Hong Kong, or banned people from Hong Kong. Don’t quote me on that. On a podcast.

Amanda Kludt: We are recording.

Andrew Genung: But just today, United canceled flights to and from Hong Kong from the US, American Airlines did as well. Although they co-chair with Cathay, which is the big Hong Kong operator.

But I think people are sort of like ... I’ve been talking to people about whether or not we’re going to come back and they say it’s not so much about whether the virus, you’re going to get the virus. It’s more about, will you be trapped in Hong Kong for a long amount of time?

Amanda Kludt: If you go back, you might not be able to leave for a while.

Andrew Genung: And our kids’ schools are canceled. The schools were already canceled for two weeks, now they’re talking about until the beginning of March, and they’re talking about even further. So there’s not much to go back to, school wise. I mean we, have jobs.

Daniel Geneen: So Hong Kong’s got some got some issues right now.

Andrew Genung: It’s got some issues right now, and it’s terrible. Because, I mean it’s a great city, and it obviously has a thriving restaurant scene. But it’s, you imagine the margins in restaurants already and how hard it is to operate, and you get a drop off of 50%.

Daniel Geneen: Right.

Amanda Kludt: What are the restaurateurs saying?

Andrew Genung: So there’s, I mean my WhatsApp’s last night were, the first guy wrote me back and just said, “Devastating.” One word. And then he filled it in, I don’t know what language I’m allowed to use here.

Amanda Kludt: Oh, go for it.

Andrew Genung: Then he just said, “Fuck. Shit is real here. It’s nuts man, you guys coming back?” It’s just lights out for many.

It’s just been really bad. They told me that they’re, some of them are removing tables and they’re going to ... For two reasons. One, they don’t have the guests. But also to spread tables out, so that people feel more comfortable, because it’s contagious, obviously. So it’s like, come to our restaurant, you’re not going to be sitting right next to somebody who’s coughing.

Daniel Geneen: Within five feet of someone.

Andrew Genung: You’re like a little ways away. And I talked to a friend there who went out to lunch the other day, and he said this place that usually has a 20, 30 minute line had no line. So it’s just, it’s a massive drop off for everybody.

Amanda Kludt: Great time to go to your favorite popular restaurant.

Daniel Geneen: A friend of mine lives in Hong Kong actually, and this is pre-Corona, but he said ... And I don’t want to make light of any kind of the protest situation, but not only is it easy to get into every restaurant, but they seem a lot happier to have you there.

Amanda Kludt: Sure. I’m sure they’re very happy to have you.

Daniel Geneen: And hotels, you can get really fancy hotels for a fraction of the price.

Andrew Genung: The hotel industry has been devastated. And that was even during the protests, we heard that a new hotel, brand speaking new, beautiful hotel had 8% occupancy in its first few months, which is ... I mean, they were big splash hotel. And I was telling people, if you’re coming to Hong Kong, make a phone call.

Andrew Genung: Call these guys and be like, “Hey, I’m coming, what’s the best rate you can get me on these rooms?” Because they got to be wanting people in the door.

Amanda Kludt: Right. It’s interesting. There is someone you quoted saying that we watch out for the tourists, we protect the tourists, they’re not part of this. But as a tourist, that’s not super comforting to you. You’re not really raring to go.

Andrew Genung: I think that’s the hard part. And especially for mainland Chinese. I mean, they feel very targeted, rightly so, by a lot of Hong Kongers who are frustrated with the mainland, mainland politics. And now, the fact that this virus is coming from the mainland, is another sort of strike against in the minds of many Hong Kongers.

Andrew Genung: And mainland tourists make up 70% of Hong Kong tourists. I think, virus aside, we’ll see what happens with that. If the protests resume, if you are a relatively smart tourist who is not nervous about getting stuck for a few minutes and walking up a hill to find a taxi, Hong Kong is a great place to visit, still. And it actually has a lot of advantages at this time.

Daniel Geneen: Just don’t tell your mom you’re going.

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