Neil Drummond stands at the door of Coyote Bar & Grill in Wan Chai and peers into the street. Tonight, he’s as likely to see tumbleweed pass by as a prospective customer.
This is the reality for Hong Kong’s historic bar strip on Lockhart Road ” which started life as a red-light district in the 1950s ” after the double blow of the year-long anti-government protests and the more recent Covid-19 epidemic. In Wan Chai and Hong Kong’s other traditional nightlife hub, Lan Kwai Fong, the past 12 months have been a tale of empty bars and huge losses in earnings.
Drummond, senior operations manager of Coyote’s, has never seen anything like it. As if the civil unrest and coronavirus emergency weren’t bad enough, there is another reason why business is so poor for him: the US-China trade war.
As tensions began to ratchet up between the two countries, the frequency of US naval ships coming to Hong Kong started to dwindle to one every few months. That was until last year, when the Chinese authorities stopped them making port calls altogether in response to US President Donald Trump signing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which allows Washington to impose sanctions on officials deemed to have violated human rights in Hong Kong.
“Our biggest loss financially has been the US Navy not coming to town. Generally, they’d be here every month,” Drummond says. “The size of the ships would vary, but when an aircraft carrier came to town there would be 7,000 navy personnel in Wan Chai for four days and many of them would come to Coyote.”
US Navy personnel would go to the bar, put on one of the freely available sombreros, have a fishbowl ” a huge glass of margarita priced at HK$488 (US$63) and advertised as “margaritas to share or dive into solo” ” and dig into a variety of burritos, tacos and quesadillas.
“When the US Navy was in the city, it was even bigger than the Hong Kong rugby sevens for us. We were the main place for them to come to. We’re a Mexican bar that does good Mexican food. Quite a few of the sailors were of Mexican descent. They loved coming here,” Drummond says.
Today he is looking no farther than the next few months. Survival is all that matters at the moment. The establishment, which has been in Wan Chai for 20 years, will receive government subsidies and is getting some help from its landlord in the form of a rent reduction. But things are still more difficult than they have ever been.
“Businesspeople are not coming for conventions, and the after-work crowd has dropped significantly. Many are drinking in bars (near) where they live or drinking at home now. It’s been very tough,” he says.
A few doors down from Coyote, at British-themed bars The Queen Victoria and Churchill’s, business is brisker. “Crazy Hour” drinks from 5pm to 7pm go for as little as HK$20 for a bottle of San Miguel and that looks to be helping, but the busy period only lasts a few hours.
“Our Crazy Hour gets the after-work crowd in, but as the night goes on that will slow up a lot,” says Stuart Jackets, general manager and company director of both pubs.
“The bar business has been going down in Wan Chai over the years. It’s been a gradual decline, but no one could have predicted this. The protests put business down 30 to 40 per cent, but the virus was even worse and we lost about 75 to 80 per cent of business. We’ll get government subsidies but these won’t cover the rent we lost when we had to close for five weeks because of the lockdown, or staff costs.”
On the bright side, the cheaper alcohol prices have been attracting more non-expat customers, with both bars now drawing in many more local drinkers than the other watering holes in Wan Chai, Jackets says.
“Before this our customers would have been 80 per cent expats compared to 20 per cent Chinese. Now, particularly in Churchill’s, 50 to 60 per cent of customers are Chinese,” he says. “With so much expat trade dropping off and no businessmen or tourists coming through, you have to try and tap into the local market, and we seem to be doing that.”
Further down Lockhart Road, The White Stag bar has been in Wan Chai for 19 years and is facing the same troubles as the others. For general manager Jonny Porteus, the “protest riots were easy”, whereas the financial fallout from the coronavirus epidemic has been devastating.
“It’s been a real struggle and will continue to be a real struggle. It’s not going to get better overnight. There’s no miracle cure,” Porteus says.
Changes in the conditions on rental leases may also ease the pain, as landlords offer short-term contacts instead of three-year commitments, which had been the norm until very recently.
“We’re constantly negotiating with our landlord about our rent,” Porteus says.
Businesses in residential areas away from traditional nightlife hotspots have not been hit anywhere near as badly as Wan Chai, he believes, as people working from home go to their local bar or coffee shop rather than make the effort to try further afield.
“There’s no need to go out of your neighbourhood and there’s nobody here from out of town to show the sights to, so why go to Wan Chai?” Porteus says. “It’s not like 10 years ago when the only places people went to was Wan Chai and Lan Kwai Fong.”
Opposite The White Stag, Irish bar Delaney’s ” which like others was ordered by the government to close temporarily to prevent the spread of Covid-19 ” has received a reasonable rental reduction and government subsidies that have helped to keep the business going. The bar has also managed to bring back drinkers over the past eight weeks by hosting twice-weekly quiz nights.
“We’ve had to make staff cuts and pay cuts like everyone else, but hopefully we survived the worst of it, and with live sports coming back on TV we’ll at least see more customers coming through the door,” says Harvey Hartwig, Delaney’s general manager.
There is another sign that things may be on the road to returning to at least a semblance of normality.
“It’s funny, but you know things are slowly starting to improve in Wan Chai because the prostitutes and drug dealers are back on the streets,” Hartwig says.
Before joining Delaney’s, Hartwig worked for 20 years at Al’s Diner in Lan Kwai Fong ” the other main Hong Kong nightlife hub ” when the bar was at the heart of the neighbourhood’s action amid a blur of 1980s music and vodka jelly shots.
“Lan Kwai Fong will be decimated until the tourist trade comes back,” he says. “It has never depended on regulars to make money. The majority of people that went there were tourists, and no tourists are coming to Hong Kong.”
Stewart Banister is the owner of the Baan Thai restaurant and bar on Wyndham Street and a member of the Lan Kwai Fong Association, which groups together more than 100 restaurants, bars, clubs and retailers in the area.
He’s all too aware of how precarious the future looks for the once-popular tourist spot, but had already seen the rot set in before the anti-government protests or the coronavirus outbreak.
“Lan Kwai Fong was going downhill long before any of this,” Banister says. “Rents were high and business was dropping. Then two 7-Elevens opened there and people would buy beer from them. They’d stand on the street drinking and would only go into the bars to use their washrooms.
“A lot of the establishments also started employing guys out at the front of each bar where they’d show you menus and try to persuade you to come in. It cheapened the place and made it look tacky. It put people off going there and it lowered the tone.”
Even after the protests and the Covid-19 outbreak, which saw a cluster of cases in Lan Kwai Fong in March and led to bars being shut down temporarily, Banister says landlords in the neighbourhood have still not been prepared to lower rents, unlike in Wan Chai.
“It’s down to arrogance,” he says. “They think the location will always be popular. The reality is those days are gone.”
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