Under the arches

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 May, 2007, 12:00am


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At five in the morning, the shops are dark and there's no one in sight on Sai Yeung Choi Street South, usually one of Mong Kok's busiest spots. But it's a different scene in a brightly lit basement restaurant down the road. One of the few businesses in the area to stay open overnight, the McDonald's outlet draws a broad mix of people: teenagers chattering over early breakfast, gamers, night workers and a few who find the restaurant convenient for a snooze, resting heads on their arms over the tables.

But university student Lai Hoi-chuen has a more serious goal. He's cramming for an exam the next day, apparently unaffected by the background music and noisy teenagers. 'I can't study at home. There are too many temptations like TV, comics and video games,' says Lai, a nursing major who lives nearby. 'I've been studying at McDonald's since my A-levels. I come here because the library and study rooms are too crowded.'

The fast-food chain has become a favoured hangout for night owls across Hong Kong since expanding its 24-hour service last year. Although the first such outlet opened 20 years ago, a McDonald's spokesman says a 'change in customers' lifestyles, such as longer working time and late dining hours' meant more were needed. Of the chain's 200 branches in the city, 55 now operate round the clock.

Many have become overnight study centres for students who can't secure a place at the usual venues. Mark Mak, who was cramming with friends at a Causeway Bay outlet the night before sitting for his last paper in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination, is among them. 'My family knows I'm here,' Mak says. 'It's a nice place, except the music is too loud and I can't stand the weirdoes who occasionally show up.'

Hong Kong is living up to its slogan as a city that never sleeps. People are increasingly accustomed to late nights as the 24/7 lifestyle sets in, says cultural commentator Bottle Shiu Ka-chun. 'More and more people work late hours now ... There are more jobs that require late shifts and working hours are longer than ever before. Our society has changed its pace. The 'golden time' for evening meals used to be 7pm; now it's 9pm,' says Shiu, who teaches social work at the Baptist University.

But where the late-night crowd used to be scattered, with youngsters concentrated in video arcades and middle-aged workers in neighbourhood diners or cha chaan teng, the fast-food chain attracts people across the spectrum. Its 24-hour service is a welcome addition for people who dislike the din and stale air in venues such as karaoke bars, internet cafes and video arcades, Shiu says.

'These places are about spending money and seeking fun ... What if I want to read a book or play badminton in the middle of the night? There's a dearth of public recreational facilities that run overnight. Even some parks and football fields are closed after midnight. Where do you think people can go?'

For Rex Lam, a social worker at a Kwun Tong youth centre, the nearby McDonald's is a 'cheap, safe, and convenient' choice for a late-night hangout. During the past two months, he and his friends have gathered weekly to play video games at the restaurant. The outlet in a large mall has become a popular joint for so-called 'McGamers'.

'Hanging out in parks can be dangerous and you never know what psycho or drunkard you might run into,' Lam says. 'I like it here because they leave us alone,' Lam says. One of his colleagues, Roy Yu, also finds the informal atmosphere helpful for making friends. 'It's easy to talk to people here,' he says.

Maggie Leung Wai-ping, a saleswoman who works late shifts, has been dining after work at the same Kwun Tong branch since last August. 'Before it opened, there were only cha chaan teng. I like it better here because it's smoke- free and not as crowded; you can have a table to yourself,' Leung says. 'The staff won't give me looks if I stick around.'

'It's this kind of approachability and low intervention that draws people,' says Shiu. 'McDonald's is hassle-free. You can come or leave as you please. You don't need to sign up before using the services. You can meet your needs quickly in a clean and reliable environment.'

Although the seating, loud muzak and bright lighting aren't conducive to sleep, the outlets have become havens for a number of homeless and low-income workers. Not only do they offer a safe environment, there's air conditioning - a great attraction in steamy summer months - and shelter from mosquitoes.

Contrary to popular belief, these sleepover customers are not necessarily jobless. 'Some are temporary workers who earn very little, so they can't afford to rent a place,' says Ng Wai-tung, a community organiser of the Society for Community Organisation.

Others are workers living in distant districts; so staying over helps save commuting time and travel expenses. 'These people are caught in a limbo because they don't qualify for homeless shelters because they have jobs. But they are too poor to afford a place,' Ng says.

But recent media reports about 'McRefugees' have forced many to leave. They fear media scrutiny,' Ng says. 'The more important factor is the chain is blocking off low-traffic sections at some branches in the wake of such publicity so people can no longer sleep there, he says. 'I feel bad for them. I hope McDonald's can be more open-minded, and not view accommodating them as a bad thing. As long as these people don't cause disturbances or take up space required by others, I hope they can re-open the areas.'

However, the chain maintains that such actions are made to 'save energy'. It hasn't received any complaints about 'customers staying in the restaurant for a long time', the company spokesman says, and 'customers are welcome to visit McDonald's anytime at their convenience'.

While the 'McRefugees' label seems to cast a shadow on the late-night community, Shiu says the trend should not be seen only as an indicator of social ills. The 24-hour outlets provide a setting that brings people together from all walks of life, which makes them a great spot for people watching. 'It's a natural phenomenon,' says Shiu.

Regulars such as Lam shrug off concerns that the late-night habit reflects badly on youngsters. 'We have our own jobs, and we're just here to relax,' he says. 'It's not like we have personal problems.'

Think social hubs. 'The owner of a space may designate its purpose, but how people use it in reality may exceed expectations,' says Shiu. 'McDonald's is a classic example. It's not just somewhere to grab a hamburger, but has turned into a place for playing games, romance, making friends and sleeping. The human element brings the space alive and gives it infinite possibilities.'