No-show business

BARELY A MONTH ago it looked so promising: an armada of international music was on the way to enshrine Hong Kong in the annals of rock respectability. Now the fallout from the overseas reaction to the atypical pneumonia outbreak is sweeping through a shell-shocked entertainment industry.

High-profile acts such as the Rolling Stones, Santana and Moby have pulled the plug and a host of smaller artists have cancelled or postponed. As crowds stay away, ticket sales are evaporating and refunds being dished out. The list of what's off is growing daily as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) scare keeps punters indoors. Organisers and venue owners hope the next few days will bring a resolution, as a few more weeks of cancellations could put the arts and entertainments scene in crisis.

'It's an unprecedented situation,' admits Andrew Bull of Arena Group. 'Apart from the human tragedy of it, we were all hoping last week would be the worst of it. Right now there's no way of telling when it's going to be over.'

Promoters such as Bull have to negotiate the artists' schedules and book venues months before performances. Hong Kong's position on international tours could be jeopardised due to its current inability to secure bookings. 'At the moment all we have is uncertainty and hysteria. Until that subsides, one would be loath to announce anything. It pales into insignificance.'

Responsible for the recent Cliff Richard concert, Bull is lucky in that he sidestepped the current cancellation crisis by mere weeks. This provides no comfort, however, as he explains: 'Atypical pneumonia is the only non-war story that the world is watching. If the situation gets worse and more housing blocks are quarantined, it will be a long time before we can attract artists from overseas again - especially as those from the United States are particularly sensitive right now.'

With governments and the World Health Organisation now issuing travel warnings, the Hong Kong Film Festival, which begins next week, has suffered as the majority of guest speakers from overseas, including what was to be its coup, Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes, are now unable to attend.

'Who would want to come here if they knew they would have to be quarantined for 10 days after they return?' asks festival director Peter Tsi Ka-kei. In the meantime, his team is liaising closely with the eight venues. 'We are monitoring the number of new cases each day, although I think the majority of people will still want to come. We'll be supplying free masks for everyone,' he adds positively.

All very well for the big screen, but these are not the kind of masks associated with the stage. Local productions are being abandoned on an hourly basis. 'We might as well have been hit by an earthquake,' sighs David Andrews, whose Chunky Onion Productions has been forced to cancel its April children's theatre shows. 'I can't expect parents to risk their kids' safety, so I have to pull the plug. I've never seen anything like it in my time as a promoter - it's devastating the whole industry.'

Countless stage shows have fallen victim, including next week's events at the Hong Kong Academy For Performing Arts and Blood Brothers. The play's director, Lindsay McAllister, explains: 'It's a real shame as we've all put so much work into the production. Part of you wants to go ahead but no one knows what we're dealing with here. We have to postpone as there's no way of predicting a swift end to the crisis.'

Others are more defiant and insist the show must go on. 'The whole city is depressed enough as it is,' says Ivan Clark of Glide and Swerve Inc, who plans to award the best-decorated face mask with a bottle of vodka at his One Last Time party at The Edge tonight. 'I haven't even considered cancelling it. The sooner we start getting on with things again, the sooner things will get better. And knowing Hong Kong, we'll be worrying about something else this time next week anyway.'

The discovery of every new case raises the fear factor, however, and the food and beverage industry in particular finds itself in new, uncharted territory. 'It's business as usual for us, but we're praying that it'll be over soon,' admits Jamie Higgins, general manager of the ninetyseven group. 'We've done our utmost to ensure our premises have been cleansed, but public confidence is such that takings are still down 10 to 15 per cent. Fingers are crossed that it will be a short-term problem.' And what if the situation fails to improve? 'Then all the bars in the area will have to sit down together as neighbours and discuss what to do. There's no way of planning for something like that.'

Ticketing agencies are bearing the brunt of the cancellations, as more events fall victim. 'None of us can predict the long term,' says HK Ticketing chairman Cliff Wallace. 'Rescheduling is the objective now, but where cancelling is necessary, refunds are in order and expected.'

In the meantime, Wallace too believes that Hong Kong needs a dose of positive thinking and less media sensationalism that is 'fuelling the panic syndrome all over town. The situation means less business and revenue,' he continues, '[but] that's insignificant. What's important to us is to solve the Sars health issue. Loss of events income for now is a trivial matter.'

For now maybe - but if no resolution materialises then the industry may have to consider tackling the biggest threat it has so far faced.