Not even free flights can lure people back to this once-bustling city

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Hong Kong: In a rundown alleyway in one of Hong Kong’s most populated areas, seafood stall owner Tsang Kam Por has put his protest signs up.

Stained blood-red and screaming with anger, the white sheets are covered in the scrawls of a man who has been pushed to the limit by the Hong Kong government.

A woman walks past a fading mural that depicts traditional Hong Kong houses. Credit: Daniel Ceng

“We will fight until the end,” the signs say over the stall in Sham Shui Po. “Until death.”

Tsang is not fighting for democracy. He is fighting for his shop. The 16-square-metre stall has been selling Cantonese stir-fried seafood for more than 70 years and is now being forced out by the Hong Kong government and property developers hungry for land in one of the world’s most densely populated islands.

Beijing imposed national security laws on Hong Kong in 2020 that wiped out pro-democracy protests in the former British colony, but little pockets of resistance, particularly over business disputes, still exist in this city of more than 7 million people.

“They don’t have the guts to suppress this form of resistance,” says Tsang. “We just want fair compensation.”

Banners outside Tsang Kam Por’s shop to protest against the government’s redevelopment plans.Credit: Daniel Ceng

Day and night Tsang and his 86-year-old mother are harassed by government authorities. They are threatening to revoke his license unless he does a deal with the property developer next door. The 67-year-old has taken to sleeping inside the stall that supported generations of his family since he was a toddler, fearful that it will suddenly be torn down while he is not there.

“These dishes are in our blood,” says Elton Chiu, an interior construction manager and a customer at the fishball stall next door which will also be demolished under plans to redevelop the area in November. “They are more worried about the image of Hong Kong than anything, but stalls like this are a major characteristic of Hong Kong.”

Their customers are now protesting the only way they can: by lining up to buy noodles from the two Dai Pai Dong stalls. All along the line and throughout the city the same grievances are repeated.

“Hong Kong is suffering right now,” says Danny Hussein, a tailor in Mirador Mansion, a ramshackle building in the city centre that was once the centre of Hong Kong’s tourism trade but now has as many vacant stalls as filled ones.

Customers have been flocking to Cheung Fat Noddle Shop for the last bite of handmade fishballs before it is shut down in November.Credit: Daniel Ceng

A storm of global and local factors has hit this once-great international city, squeezing its residents at the top and at the bottom. Draconian COVID-19 restrictions and the Hong Kong government’s response to pro-democracy protests pushed more than 200,000 people out of the city between 2020 and 2022.

The labour force shrunk to less than 3.9 million, reducing the number of workers to the level there was a decade ago.

“When people leave, it’s not easy to bring them back,” says Hussein.

In February, the government announced it would give away half a million airline tickets to bring visitors back to the city, but few from its historical markets in Europe, Australia and the United States seem interested, according to shop owners across the city.

Hong Kong tailor Danny Hussein. Credit: Daniel Ceng

“There is no such thing as what it was before in 2016 or 2015,” says Hussein. “We are doing about 10 per cent of the business that we had then.”

To make up for falling revenue, hotels pushed up prices and landlords jacked up rents, driving many businesses into a spiral that saw them leave behind premises they had spent decades building.

In their place, different businesses have emerged, changing the character of a city that has always been a melting pot of Chinese, English, Filipino and Indian cultures. The tailors that once dominated Mirador Mansion are disappearing. In their place pharmaceuticals and bulk Chinese traditional medicine shops are emerging, markets favoured by mainland Chinese tourists who now make up the bulk of visitors to the city.

“Five years ago, the mainland Chinese tourists that came to Hong Kong, they had money to spend, they wanted to buy everything,” says Hussein.

But China’s own economic woes have changed that equation. Now many of the visitors are more interested in bulk buying at discounted prices than splashing out on a fresh suit.

“It’s a different type of tourist,” says Hussein.

In Sheung Shui, where skyscrapers from the Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen tower over the Hong Kong suburb, Chinese shopper Xu, who asked only to be identified by her last name, piles up her suitcase with milk powder, supplements and perfumes to take back across the border.

“They are better, cheaper, and we need them,” she says.

Hong Kong’s central business district has struggled since COVID-19. Credit: Daniel Ceng

“In terms of quality and price, it is better here than in China,” says Law, a Chinese medicine and dried food store owner.

Pui Sze, who helps run the Youth Co-Living Hostel in Kowloon, says business has been good. More than 50 per cent of her visitors now come from mainland China.

“It’s not like we’re completely down,” she says. “We still have to create possibilities for the future.”

That future is increasingly being pinned on investment from the mainland. The number of school students from China has grown by more than 20 per cent, according to teachers who work at schools across the city who asked not to be identified because education is politically sensitive in Hong Kong. Every afternoon at Lak Ma Chau thousands of school students pile back over the border to their homes in Shenzhen.

Business agents spruiking Chinese investment schemes in Hong Kong.Credit: Daniel Ceng

Further south outside Hong Kong’s high-end shopping stores, business agents are also spruiking investment schemes that will allow mainlanders to obtain Hong Kong residence cards and school admissions.

The schemes, which allow Chinese investors to buy insurance and then generate invoices from a registered address in Hong Kong, are targeting visitors who want to get their money out of Beijing’s increasingly precarious financial environment.

But the ultra-wealthy in China remain wary because of the national security laws imposed by Beijing in 2020, which could leave their assets exposed in Hong Kong if they are linked to any of Beijing’s vague and wide-ranging interpretations of national security.

A push by the government to make Hong Kong a hub for family offices has received a lukewarm response, Nikkei reported in October, with many millionaires still preferring to shift their money beyond the reach of Chinese regulators to Singapore.

School students returning to Shenzhen from Hong Kong on Thursday afternoon. Credit: Daniel Ceng

John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive, remains optimistic that the city can turn a corner.

“Hong Kong is the only world-class city that can capitalise on both the China advantage and the international advantage,” he said on Wednesday in his annual policy speech.

Lee said the government would step up efforts to promote tourism development, boost local consumption, improve investment, and propel economic growth.

“Our policy directions are to sharpen our edge and grasp the opportunities while addressing our shortcomings and any potential risks,” he said.

Australian tourist Colin Bull said he believed the tourism market would rebound once cruise ships were operating at full capacity. “I think it will bounce back,” he said.

But business leaders and locals worry that the city’s culture is being changed permanently. The curbs on freedom of speech have put them on edge, and a culture of entrepreneurship and meritocracy is being pushed out by mainland-style bureaucracy.

At the fishball noodle store in Sham Shui Po, Chiu laments the imminent destruction of the food stalls.

“You can drink and talk about your life here, everything from social issues to politics,” he says.“It’s a very open area as long as you don’t endanger the interests of national security.”

Hong Kong stall owner Tsang Kam Por confronts officials this week. Credit: Daniel Ceng

Next door, Tsang is preparing for another night on the barricades. He doesn’t think Hong Kong police will take down his signs, because he believes business protests are what differentiates Hong Kong from the mainland.

Hours after our interview with Tsang the Hong Kong police arrived at his shop to tear down the banners.

“I think that hope is now gone,” he says.

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