It's not just stockbrokers' stomachs and Central restaurants that could be emptier when the stock exchange's lunch break shrinks again tomorrow - the change could also be grim news for small and medium-sized securities firms.
Small brokers fear cutting the lunch break by another 30 minutes to an hour will deny them the chance to talk to clients.
And they don't understand Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing's reasoning for the change.
Brokers and traders in Hong Kong had the longest lunch break of any of the world's 20 biggest bourses, at two hours, until last year. The HKEx said the latest cut was needed to bring the market in line with those on the mainland, but small brokers said it was an attempt to drive them out.
'The lunch break is not only for eating,' Louis Lai, associate director for Philip Securities, said. 'Very often, we meet our clients during lunch. The shortened lunch means less time for communicating with them and promoting our business.'
While traders in Tokyo and Singapore have also seen their lunch breaks cut or eliminated in recent years, Lai said it was unreasonable to follow the practices of other markets without considering the local situation. 'Every market has its own characteristics and mechanism. It is meaningless to just follow suit.'
Lo Kam-chiu, a stockbroker for 23 years, said he had never felt more pessimistic about the industry's future as he was now. 'It's killing us,' the 67-year-old said on Friday, the last day he had a 90-minute lunch. 'They want to exhaust us.'
Lo, who works at Luen Fat Securities in Central, said brokers would barely have time for food, never mind a meeting.
'It's just another move to eliminate us,' he said. 'I used to receive commission of up to HK$200,000 a decade ago. Now I get less than HK$10,000 a month.'
Brokers complained of unfair competition when the minimum commission policy was scrapped in 2002. 'Their [HKEx's] policies are very much inclined to the bigger firms. When they do consultation, they never ask us, only the bigger firms,' he said. 'We, the smaller firms, have to approach clients one by one to get more business, unlike the bigger ones, which have the money and power in the market.'
Among the Asia-Pacific markets, Australia, South Korea, Singapore and India have no break in trading hours. The Tokyo Stock Exchange cut the break to one hour last year.
About 1,000 brokers marched to the HKEx headquarters last month to protest against the change, while brokers also wrote to chief executive Charles Li Xiaojia and chairman Ronald Arculli to complain.
Announcing the exchange's results last week, Arculli said the first phase of the extension of trading hours went 'smoothly' while Li said: 'Extending the trading hours is important in enhancing the competitiveness of the Hong Kong market.'