Tea and tear gas: Hong Kong’s shops on the economic front lines

Lo Bak Jun and his family have been running their successful tea house in Hong Kong for about three decades. He puts in approximately 70 hours a week, but despite the hard work, business is suffering.

“It’s gotten worse since June this year. Business this year is the worst in 30 years for the shop,” Lo told Al Jazeera.

Lo’s parents started the Kam Yuen Tea House in the early 1990s when Hong Kong’s economy was booming. But now, the city is in recession, tipped over the edge by more than six months of unrest and a protracted trade war between the United States and China.

Small businesses like his are on the financial front line, as tourists stay away and retail sales plunge.

He sells traditional and specialist Chinese teas such as Jasmine, Tieguanyin and Pu’er at the teahouse. He warmly welcomes customers, inviting them to sample different brews, and is happy to host regulars for hours who sip and chat.

“Some tourists will sit here all day and drink all the tea they are given.”

In the past, at least one tour group would visit the shop a day. Now, days go past without a single foreign customer.

Government data shows Hong Kong visitor numbers were down 56 percent in November from a year earlier, after a 44 percent drop in October when tourism is usually thriving around China’s national Golden Week holiday.

Lo misses his foreign customers but says he relies on locals for most of his business. For every 20 Hong Kong dollars ($2.57) spent by a tourist in his shop, a Hong Kong local would spend approximately 100 Hong Kong dollars ($12.85). “Hong Kong people love tea,” says Lo.

Kam Yuen Tea House is in the bustling residential and commercial neighbourhood of Sai Ying Pun, west of Hong Kong’s central business district.

Beijing’s liaison office is on a parallel road nearby.

The area was the scene of some of the first provocative acts last year by protesters, who vandalised the Chinese emblem and threw eggs at the building. The police response was harsh, with liberal amounts of tear gas and mass arrests. It was the start of an escalation in violence that has seen protesters fighting and throwing petrol bombs while police use rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and even occasionally live gunfire to quell the unrest.

Lo says he had to close the shop twice when protesters passed by. But he is sympathetic. “The students are polite,” he continues, “the government needs to do better.”

It all started earlier in 2019, when the Hong Kong government tried to rush through a new extradition bill. People protested over concerns it would give Beijing a legal avenue for political persecution, but it also stoked deeper resentment over a lack of universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

Growing frustration, shrinking economy
There is also pent-up frustration over stagnating living standards in a city with some of the world’s most expensive real estate, making Hong Kong one of the least affordable places to live on the planet.

The protests against the bill evolved early on into five key demands including the release of protesters arrested during early demonstrations, an independent investigation into harsh police action against protesters and the right to fully vote for legislators and the Chief Executive, the head of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

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