Hong Kong losing taste for traditional trades as city embraces new business chains

Barbers and shoe shiners become a rare sight, while tea houses shut as youngsters now prefer to get their caffeine fix at cafes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2017, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2017, 6:20pm

In the old days Hongkongers used to consume milk tea, pineapple buns, macaroni with sliced ham and egg and corned beef sandwiches at the city’s cha chaan teng, or tea houses. With smoked mirrors, vintage ceiling fans producing moving silhouettes and booth-style tables, you might have felt you were on the sets of Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love or 2046 by Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-wai.

But this iconic Cantonese cafe culture has been gradually fading out, with many establishments closing. Typical of this trend is the shuttering of Man Wah Cafe and Bakery in Mong Kok at the end of last year after serving food lovers in Hong Kong for more than 40 years.

The restaurant, with vintage-style interiors, was frequented by many well-known stars such as actor Sean Lau Ching-wan and Canto-pop superstar Sam Hui Koon-kit.

The city now has a wide selection of restaurants, leaving cha chaan tengs well behind. Young Hongkongers more often than not nowadays largely enjoy breakfast or tea at Western chains such as Starbucks and Pacific Coffee, or fast-food chains such as Maxim’s, McDonald’s or Cafe de Coral.

Cheap and filling, with a side of controversy: how Café de Coral became Hong Kong’s largest fast-food chain

The tea house is not the only sunset business in an ever-changing retail scene.

Once familiar services rapidly disappearing include tailors, mom-and-pop stores, Shanghai barbers, shoe shiners, open-air dai pai dong food stalls, video outlets and mainland department stores.

Their places have been taken by smartphone shops, pharmacies, cosmetics sellers, gold and jewellery stores, luxury brand chains and, of course, malls.

There are many reasons for this transformation, according to cultural critic and Sub-culture Limited publisher Jimmy Pang Chi-ming.

Among them, he says, are rapid technological developments, sky-high rents, mainlandisation courtesy of the influx of cross-border tourists and migrants; the reluctance of the younger generation to take over traditional family businesses and the loss of the city’s heritage.

Danny Lau Tat-pong, honorary life chairman of the Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association, agrees, saying staggering rents have forced small or local-style shops to move to remote areas or even to close.

“The price is that Hong Kong is gradually losing its appeal without its own unique characteristics. The shops in Hong Kong have become standardised, offering similar products. Many shops that embodied Hong Kong’s traditional culture are gone,” he says.

According to government figures, the average monthly rent for retail premises on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon and the New Territories was HK$907 per square metre, HK$1,094 and HK$718 respectively in 1998. Those figures rose to HK$1,500, HK$1,335 and ­HK$1,300 respectively for the locations last year.

Some notable casualties of high rents and economic slumps, such as the Asian financial crisis in 1997, were famous Japanese and Chinese department stores.

Among the Japanese stores were Yaohan, which closed in 1997, and Matsuzakaya and Daimaru, which shut their doors in 1998.

Many mainland department stores famous for their cheap but durable and high-quality clothing and traditional craft items also shut despite the introduction of the Individual Visit Scheme in 2003, which allowed mainland tourists to come to the city without having to join tour groups.

Among the casualties were CRC Department Store in Causeway Bay in 2004, Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporium branches in Tsim Sha Tsui and Central in 2009 and the Chinese Merchandise Emporium in Tsuen Wan in 2011.

Pang recalls that Hongkongers used to stockpile cotton-padded coats, quilts and woollen jackets from mainland stores either for themselves or poor relatives on the mainland.

“At that time Hongkongers liked to snap up traditional goods at Chinese department stores because they were very cheap and of good quality. In those days a Chinese-style cotton-padded coat could help you resist the whole winter and last for at least a decade,” he says.

But even the influx of mainland tourists with significant purchasing power could not prevent the decline of these department stores, which were replaced by shops selling luxury goods, cosmetics chains like Sasa and pharmacies.

“Mainland tourists worship foreign things. When they have money to come here, of course they only look for the things they can’t easily find on the mainland. Also, they think that the goods in Chinese department stores are old-fashioned.”

Pang believes the failure of the younger generation to take over family businesses has also led to the demise of some once popular trades.

One example is traditional tailors, which in their heyday attracted international customers such as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, the late “King of Pop” Michael Jackson and former US president Bill Clinton.

The closure of 79-year-old Yee On Tai Tailor and Woollen last year symbolised the decline of this once famous trade as the establishment was one of the big four businesses of its kind in the city.

Outdoor food stalls are also struggling to survive. Government policy allows only a surviving spouse to inherit a dai pai dong licence. As a result, only 26 dai pai dong remain in the city today – even though they are considered part of Hong Kong’s collective memory through the colour, vibrancy and diversity they bring to the street scene and their cheap local delicacies.

Another example of the end of tradition was the 2007 demolition of Lee Tung Street in Wan Chai. Known as Wedding Card Street for its many publishers of cards and matrimonial items, it was bulldozed to make way for a luxury shopping development.

Meanwhile, malls continue to emerge – like IFC Mall in Central in 2003, Langham Place in Mong Kok in 2004, APM in Kwun Tong in 2005, MegaBox in Kowloon Bay in 2007 and iSQUARE in Tsim Sha Tsui in 2009.

Lau says with the disappearance of mom-and-pop stores, Hong Kong has become increasingly commercialised. “All the feelings of warmth and humanity generated by these old trades have gone. Now we have more choices but we are forced to pay higher prices for goods.”

Technology has also played a role in the changing shopping scene. CD players, pagers and videos have already become redundant as people rely on smartphones to listen to music, take photos and videos, watch TV programmes and films, send text messages and make phone calls. The video and CD stores that lined the streets in the past have become smartphone shops or stores selling accessories.

The internet has also played a part in the shake-up of the media scene. Declining advertiser and reader interest led to the closure of local print newspapers such as Tin Tin Daily News in 2000, Hong Kong Daily News in 2015 and The Sun a year later while new online only media sites have popped up in the past decade. The closure of the largest English-language bookseller, Dymocks, which ended its 15-year presence in the city in early 2015, showed how shifting reading habits were having an effect on the publishing industry as readers moved to online bookstores or e-readers.

Troubled bookstore chain Page One followed suit by shutting its two remaining city stores last year as the Singapore-based company failed to overcome fierce competition from online sales.

The entertainment sector was also hit hard by the internet age with the closure of Asia Television, the world’s oldest Chinese-language TV broadcaster, in April last year after 59 years in operation.

Times also appear daunting for Viu TV and Fantastic TV, two free-to-air television broadcasters launched in April last year and May respectively, and media giant Television Broadcasts as they face keen competition and declining advertising income.

Due to overreliance on mainland productions, a talent drain and lack of competition, once popular Canto-pop culture has made way for a Korean wave of celebrities, who have captured the hearts of many Hongkongers with their music and roles in romantic dramas.