A CITY ON THE EDGE: The Impact of Eight Months of Upheaval on Life and Business in Hong Kong
An article from our founder Rasheed Shroff about his entrepreneurial journey over the past 6 months in Hong Kong.
My home, Hong Kong, has been hit incredibly hard by the Coronavirus. Business and daily life in this city has changed for so many people and any sense of normality feels weeks if not months away. It was recently reported that over 100 restaurants have closed their doors and many local and international retailers have done the same. Inevitably more will follow. Daily arrivals this month are down over 98% on the same period last year and hotel occupancy rates are well below 10% in a city where 80% occupancy was considered poor. Basic staples like toilet paper, tissues, bleach, rice and pasta have been sold out and an armed robbery actually took place over 600 rolls of toilet paper! Schools have been closed since Chinese New Year and will now remain closed until after Easter (12 weeks of closure) with ‘Work from Home’ (WFH) becoming the norm for many professionals.
Yet the true long term impact of the Coronavirus on business and ultimately on people’s lives, coming hard on the heels of prolonged political protests, will not be seen for several months yet as the fall-out on business trickles through the economy and hits many individuals hard. Corporate restructuring, on the cards for many companies before the virus, will go deeper than previously planned and small businesses and many industries will scale back or shut their doors and their workers will ultimately bear the brunt. The Government will do all it can, and still be criticized no matter how much it does, as it was last week when announcing a HK$30 billion (US$4 billion) relief package. Yesterday, a HK$10,000 (US$1,300) per person handout was announced along with a whole slew of incentives for businesses.
Hong Kong is certainly not alone in facing the massive economic and psychological impact of the virus and the monumental measures to counter its spread. Hubei, a province of 60 million people has been locked down for over a month. The epicentre of all this, the city of Wuhan, has a population larger than London or New York and putting that context on the scale of the imposed shutdown is necessary to even begin to appreciate what is being done to control the spread. 60 Million people in Hubei province being locked down is akin to closing Italy or England from the rest of the world for over a month. This week we have seen countries in both Europe and the Middle East become ‘victims’ of the virus with measures to curtail it being implemented in both regions.
It’s been eight months since June 16th, when the world looked on in awe as two million Hong Kongers peacefully took to our streets, in a massive anti-extradition bill march. Hong Kong’s population, on the surface at least, seemed united, albeit in opposition to the government’s proposed legislation. The six months that followed on from that peaceful and united protest has seen our home grow divided like never before, at least not in my lifetime.
Polarisation across the political spectrum seems to be the norm for so much of the world today, but this has never been the case in Hong Kong. At least not with disagreement and political sentiment dividing society so dramatically, splitting colleagues, friends and families and spilling onto our streets in a violent and destructive outpouring of anger and frustration. It is somewhat ironic that around a daily narrative criticising our Government’s actions, criticising our police-force and local authorities for enforcing government directives and not an insignificant number of people lambasting Mainland China’s handling of the Coronavirus situation, that Hong Kongers are again united, this time in their efforts to control the spread of this virus. United in this fight, despite all their disagreements and the difficulties and hardships that this has brought to our economy and our daily lives.
I was born in Hong Kong 46 years ago and have called this wonderful city home my entire life. I have seen us live through the ‘fear’ of what the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown would mean for Hong Kong, the 1997 handover of the newly formed SAR to China, the Asian financial crisis of that same year, SARS and the fear and anxiety that gripped us in 2003 and the disruption of the 2014 ‘umbrella revolution.’ Despite this, I have always considered Hong Kong to be a safe, sheltered, peaceful city with a global outlook like no other. Admittedly this may be a view through spectacles tinted with no shortage of privilege and a generous dose of good fortune. Nevertheless, optimism has always been a word that I have associated with Hong Kong and my life in this city and, through all those monumental disruptions faced by the people of Hong Kong, this city has rebounded and always emerged stronger than before.
This time, though, things feel different! Maybe it’s because we are living through this now and are focused on the present. Only time will tell if Hong Kong has the strength and ability to come together, to drag us through the inevitable period of uncertainty and difficulties that lie ahead to again emerge as “Asia’s World City”.
Sadly, today we have a generation that is disenchanted with our Government and their perceived allegiance to Mainland China over and above the needs and desires of the local population. We have a Government that is completely out of touch with the sense of injustice and inequality felt by arguably the majority of society, and we have a Mainland Chinese Government struggling to impose a form of Government and ‘conformist obedience’ on eight million Hong Kongers who long for a voice, freedom of speech and expression and a say in who rules them. Social media has changed the game and allowed everyone a platform to express themselves and build support for their individual ideas, and polarisation has been the consequence.
Personally, as a staunch Hong Konger, I remain optimistic but realistic about the future. I believe that recovery will come but will take time and that while a large degree of disruption is inevitable, Hong Kong can and will re-set itself and that indeed, it must do so to emerge again. While the virus has been massively disruptive and fear has gripped our population, for this city at least, it may provide a much needed period of cooling down and a longing for a return to normality. Regardless of whether this is the case, I have an underlying confidence that the people of Hong Kong will ensure that we pull through. We are immensely fortunate to have a very well-educated population and, while the local education system is admittedly challenged and does not encourage freedom of thought and creativity, it has historically produced some of the worlds hardest and most diligent professionals who have an inherent drive to always do better. Combining this with the sturdy embrace of individual family units and the strong values that these provide has always stood us in good stead, and I believe it will again.
Being a new business owner in Hong Kong, literally launching my business in the middle of last year’s political upheaval and now living through the Coronavirus impact, I have an entirely different sense of perspective to my previous 22 years of working for a large multinational company. As the founder of Banyan Workspace, I am committed to my project and my wonderful team of people. Banyan Workspace was inspired by Hong Kong and from the moment it was conceived, we always intended to support Hong Kong and give back to Hong Kong. As a business, it was always our idea to have an overriding purpose and that was never with an express intention to make sizeable profits. We strive to run our Workspace as sustainably as we can, to give back to our local non-profit partners and to support Hong Kong in all that we do. We work with prospective members to find win-win solutions when they approach us for space and we look to foster long term mutually beneficial relationships, rooted in an unshakable belief that this is the right approach. In some eyes this may seem idealistic, particularly in the current environment, but our team live and breathe this every single day and bring a passion and commitment to what we do that, in my humble view, makes our space special.
Unfortunately, as with everyone in this city, we are not insulated from the commercial realities of being a tenant and running a viable business in Hong Kong and so we cannot do everything we would like to do. The mantra through these tough times is to keep putting one foot in front of the other every day, stay the course and stay positive. It’s the right thing to do and the only thing you can do. No one ever achieved success without overcoming sizeable and sometimes seemingly unsurmountable obstacles and we all hold on to that and continue to move forward and prepare for the day when “this too shall pass”.
So stay strong Hong Kong, keep putting one foot in front of the other and “add oil”. Together we will re-emerge as “Asia’s World City”.