SPECIALITY SHOPS springing up in districts from North Point to Sai Kung and Tai Po reflect how much the Filipino community has grown. And Nelia Cheung, who arrived from the Philippines in 1972, was among the first to tap its potential, opening a shop to sell toiletries, cross-stitching accessories and treats from home.
The Filipinos make up a large market: while there are a number of professionals such as financiers or architects, most work as domestic helpers and the influx has swelled the number of Filipino residents from 61,200 in 1990 to 130,810 this year. Over time, modest ventures catering to their needs attained critical mass, spawning hubs within some commercial blocks.
Of these, perhaps the oldest and busiest is in Worldwide House, Central, where Cheung runs Nelia's Shop. Married to a Singaporean, she has leased a third-floor space in the property for 21 years and seen business go through troughs and peaks over the decades.
'I think I'm the only remaining 'original' Filipino tenant here,' Cheung says. 'Rents used to be incredibly low when I opened in 1985, a few years after the plaza was built. Many of the shop spaces were unoccupied and those used were by Chinese people.'
Michael Ra?ola, who manages the Philippine Products Store, counts his business among 15 tenants that have been in Worldwide House the longest. His parents opened the mini-market in 1990, and he has since taken over its operation, stocking shelves with gossip magazines, toiletries, canned food and popular snacks.
Affordable rents, coupled with a good location and the promise of huge numbers of Filipino consumers, encouraged enterprising types to set up businesses ranging from remittance services to grooming salons and snack shops.
'When the shop opened, there were only a handful of Philippine businesses. The banks were all located here, but there weren't that many shops aimed at the Filipino market,' Ra?ola says. 'When people realised that the building was right beside Chater Road, more businesses started to open up catering specifically to Filipinos.'
By 1996, Worldwide House was 'teeming', Cheung says, and it became one of the most expensive properties in Hong Kong. The three commercial floors in Worldwide House are now crammed with more than 200 shops, almost all of which serve the community. Most shop lots were leased from local owners.
'But in the early years, some Filipinos were able to buy their space because prices were low,' Cheung says. 'A lot of the remittance services, travel agents and banks in the shop spaces are now owned by Filipinos who live in the Philippines.'
There isn't much that sets the floors apart - each boasts a variety of travel agents, remittance centres, call services, newsagents, and food and clothes shops. And with crowded shops often spewing bins of products into the corridors, the scene can seem chaotic.
But Ranola says there's nothing transient about the businesses. 'Typically when someone opens up here, they stay. Obviously, there are only a few of us who've been here since the 90s and before, but generally people are in it for the long haul.'
The light buzz of activity during weekdays rises to a frenzied hum at weekends, when the domestic workers who form most of the clientele have their days off. Piling into the three floors for everything from Philippine newspapers to DVDs of hit movies, or to send a package home, they transform the corridors into busy thoroughfares.
Over the past five years, a similar if more modest nucleus has emerged in Planet Square, Hung Hom, where about 15 shops have opened to cater to the Filipino community, although it lacks the remittance services that make Worldwide House a bigger draw. Like many such shops, Uniworld operates as a mini-market. Its owner, who declines to be named, says that ventures began setting up in the building as customers helped spread the word in the community. 'Some of our regular customers even opened their own shops,' he says.
Mary Liu, who has been in Hong Kong for 15 years, is in her third year in Planet Square where she sells Philippine food products and phone cards.
'I used to work in an office. But when it closed, I decided to open the shop instead of looking for more office work,' she says.
A space in Worldwide House was not an option, Liu says. 'The rent there is more expensive than it is here. Even though it can be very quiet [in Planet Square] during the week, I prefer it here as we don't face huge rent increases like they do in Central. The most we get is a HK$500 increase at the end of each contract.'
Ra?ola says it wasn't until the mid-90s that Filipino businesses at Worldwide House began facing major rent increases.
'It was gradual at first, but in 2000 rents shot up 80 per cent. This year alone there's been a 30 to 50 per cent increase,' he says. 'In the 90s, we were paying about HK$30,000 per month. But today it's not uncommon for rents to be as high as HK$210,000 per month.'
Meanwhile, turnover went 'from good to bad' after the handover, Cheung says. Competition became more fierce, so business began to suffer. Plus, many of the Filipino clientele come in primarily to meet in an air-conditioned environment and to use the remittance services, she says.
Regular patrons Carol Orano, 35, and Lilibeth Malto, 45, concede the cool surroundings are part of the appeal.
'It's air conditioned and a good meeting place,' says Malto, a domestic helper who has worked in Hong Kong for 14 years. 'I don't come here to buy. But it has become more popular with businesses aimed at Filipinas over the years.'
For Orano, Worldwide House is a good place to relax when she's not working. 'We come here to relax. During the week, most of us are eating Chinese food or whatever our employers like,' she says. 'It's nice to come here, chat with friends, and eat food from home. But it's also quite expensive. '
Threatened by more costly leases, Cheung says she's just 'making enough to survive'. However, a similar increase in Admiralty has forced Ra?ola to close a branch of his store in the United Centre. At Planet Square, the outlook seems brighter.
'I think I'll be here for a long time yet,' says Liu. 'Business is good on weekends because so many Filipinas live nearby.'