Petting on the Ritz

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2005, 12:00am

FACING A scorcher of a day, Chan Kai-kei has brought his three-year-old to a new club in Yuen Long to beat the heat. Within minutes of arriving, Mui Mui is splashing happily in the club pool. 'I treat her as my daughter,' says Chan.

His 'daughter' is a golden retriever and the club is Pet World, one of many new facilities where doting owners can pamper their animals. The demand for such services has triggered a boom in pet hotels, pet cafes and pet resorts. They can be as luxurious as their human equivalents, with swimming pools, function rooms and specially designed grounds.

Some of the cafes organise events such as birthday parties for dogs or cats. Other centres offer a place where fashionable pooches or other pets can be dressed in the latest fashions, complete with accessories and a dab of the animal's favourite scent. There are also clinics that can treat them using traditional Chinese medicine.

The growth in services comes amid the second pet boom to hit Hong Kong. Operators say the first wave was in the early 1990s, when pet shops sprang up to offer a variety of fancy breeds. But as the novelty wore off and the economy slowed, business for pets and services slipped.

In recent years, Hong Kong's passion for pets has returned to levels on par with those in the US and Japan. But rather than being shown off as expensive toys, pets now occupy an elevated place in many owners' hearts, as companions and as substitute family, at a time when fewer people are having children in Hong Kong.

'Today, many owners treat their pets as their children, referring to themselves as the mummy and daddy,' says Guy Chan Chik-ai, the owner of Pet World.

Chan was quick to spot a business opportunity as the numbers of pets rose - at least 120,000 licences have been issued for dogs in Hong Kong since 2002. Chan quit his job as a plant supervisor and teamed up with a friend to open the I-Kennel Club dog resort. It boasted a mini swimming pool and spacious pens in the green environment of Kam Tin, and the $500,000 venture soon turned a profit.

When his landlord took back the property last year, Chan rented an even bigger space on a former chicken farm in the foothills of Yuen Long. Opened in February, the 70,000sqft Pet World charges a $150 membership fee or $40 entrance for non-members.

The resort has two swimming pools and a function room for hosting pet parties. Two others are under construction, and are earmarked for grooming sessions and classes on such topics as pet care, animal massage and communication.

Business has been brisk. Every weekend the club hosts 200 to 300 pets. 'We give them each a clean dry towel and we have waitresses ready to serve water as soon as they see that the animals are thirsty,' says a staff member.

Chan attributes the growing demand for pet services to people's greater awareness of animal care and to changing social values. 'They don't want to shoulder the big responsibility of raising a child,' he says. 'And people now have a lot of friends and entertainment that they want to enjoy.' He also says the pace in Hong Kong is such that many people feel that keeping a pet is more suited to their lifestyles.

However, observers such as Chinese University sociologist Chan Kin-man say the trend reflects a breakdown in the traditional pattern of people marrying and having children.

Many of the city's pet owners are middle-aged, childless couples. And a considerable number are well-educated professionals such as psychologist Winton Au Wing-tung. He and his partner have no children - they shower their affections on their six-year-old schnauzer.

'One argument is that raising a kid is more expensive and sometimes less satisfying that having a pet,' Au says. 'Your pet is always there for you. It doesn't care if you don't look good.'

Or as one dog owner puts it: 'They never grow up and always remain at the most adorable stage.'

Chan Kai-kei agrees. But another reason that the 28-year-old nurse has rebuffed his girlfriend's wish to have a child is fear of the future. 'It's so uncertain,' he says. 'Whether it's prospects for the economy or the world. I don't know how to raise a child, but a dog is easy to take care of. It's much simpler.'

Charis Chau is another club regular. The proud owner of two golden retrievers, Toby and Lok Lok, she says she loves dogs more than humans. 'I don't need to take care of a dog's education,' she says. 'When I watch television, they won't disturb me, but children will. And they'll never leave me.'

Pet World has been sufficiently successful to attract competition. A rival in Yuen Long is sprucing up its facilities, and at least two other clubs have opened, in Sheung Shui and Tuen Mun.

There are also luxury dog hotels, including Dogotel in Mongkok, where soothing jazz is piped to the pooches in their rooms. Hong Kong also now has some 20 dog cafes, mainly concentrated around Mongkok, Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay.

The flourishing pet market has caught the eye of Japanese pet-wear manufacturer Nori Hotta. Last October, he took over a four-storey building in Causeway Bay to open Dogonelife - a one-stop service for canines - bringing with it the Japanese culture of humanisation of pets.

The first floor is devoted to dog clothing. There's also a collection of furniture, with wardrobes, sofas, beds and pillows adjusted to canine sizes - and a push chair for when the going gets tough.

The second level is a modern salon staffed by three Japanese dog stylists, who charge $700 for an average cut. The third floor is a cafe, which is registered as a club to get around the law banning animals in eateries. All food and drink is specified as being for pets only. Treats include home-made lamb pies, beef cookies, chicken muffins, fresh fruit yoghurt - all served on tables. The set menu is $18 for a small dog and $38 for a big one.

Dogonelife marketing manager Hsu Wei-ling admits that its promotional strategy plays on the psyche of pet owners who want to feel like parents. Hsu's team offers pet boat trips, buffets, birthday parties and even pet weddings. 'The dogs were dressed in gowns,' says a worker at the pet cafe. 'We gave them a wedding certificate, with paw prints as signatures. There was formal wedding music. People treated the ceremony seriously.'

Call it what you will - an inability to deal with the complexities of modern relationships, evading commitment or the isolating effect of urban living - but Hong Kong's pet passion looks likely to be an enduring one.