Hong Kong protest boom for protection gear businesses begins to tumble

Businesses selling protection gear have enjoyed a boom in sales. (Reuters)
Updated 15 August 2019

Hong Kong protest boom for protection gear businesses begins to tumble

  • Behind the tear gas, flying bricks and transport disruptions there are bigger factors at play, such as shrinking global trade volumes and a slowdown in demand from mainland China

BEIJING: John Lam’s safety equipment shop has been spared the global downdraft shaking Hong Kong’s economy. In times of crisis, businesses providing basic necessities tend to fare better.
In Lam’s case, that means hard hats, filtered masks, goggles and other gear that millions of anti-government protesters taking to the streets in the past two months bought to protect themselves as clashes with police turned increasingly violent.
“Many people are willing to save a meal in order to buy some protective equipment, especially students,” Lam said inside his Shing Fat Safety Products shop in Yau Ma Tei, a working class commercial area of the city.
“Usually unnecessary items for civilians have become the necessity of the moment.”
Lam, who opposes the violence that has marked many of the protests, said sales had “doubled or tripled” since early June.
At times, he could not replenish stocks fast enough to meet demand. Some customers were buying 50 items at once. But lately, in a sign of saturation, demand has been easing. The reality of a slowing economy is also kicking in.
Behind the tear gas, flying bricks and transport disruptions there are bigger factors at play, such as shrinking global trade volumes and a slowdown in demand from mainland China.
Those trickle through into all aspects of the economy, including the construction industry — Lam’s core customer base.
“Although our business has improved lately, it does not mean that the economic downturn will not affect our business next month,” Lam said.
Indeed, the problems facing Hong Kong’s wide-open economy — which is expected to grind to a halt in coming quarters — run so deep that even those businesses whose products have been repurposed as protest paraphernalia are losing momentum.
Joe Chan, director of Many Stationery & Book Centre Co in the Sham Shui Po, a neighbourhood that has been the scene of protests and has been soaked in tear gas multiple times, said sales of Post-It notes are up 20 percent. Protesters have been using them to cover walls with part-art, part-political messages across the territory.
But his more important clients, event organisers who use stationery as promotion materials, are now few and far between. Overall, revenues are down 10 percent.
“This year they cancelled, or delayed,” Chan said, referring to orders.

FASTFACT

Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China in 1997.

Emily Tam, store manager of Baleno, a clothing shop in Causeway Bay, said stocks of black T-shirts, the unofficial uniform of the protests, ran out on a daily basis in June and July.
But over the past two weekends, the shopping district witnessed violent clashes and barricaded roads. Her shop closed early and since then it has seen fewer customers.
“We’re getting close to the red line that means business losses,” Tam said.
Across the road, a seller surnamed Hui at a Watsons pharmacy says her store often runs out of cooling pads, surgical masks and other supplies that protesters use. But sales of other, more expensive items, such as cosmetics, are dropping.
“Surely we are also experiencing an overall economic downturn. And when there was tear gas, we shut the door,” Hui said.
The economy has become a focus for a public relations battle between authorities and protesters.
As a city-wide strike kicked off last week, government officials said protests were scaring high-end shoppers and tourists away, threatening growth.
Protesters are blaming the downturn on the fact that Hong Kongers have little control over public policy in the absence of universal suffrage.
They say the government spends too many resources on Beijing’s priorities, such as developing a “Greater Bay Area” around the Pearl River Delta, and it is not doing enough to solve income inequality and a housing shortage.
Chan Chi Ming, 60, at Shing Cheong Stationery & Books Ltd, in Sham Shui Po, agrees with the government. He is losing business and hopes police “arrest thousands.”
But Hungry Dino owner Tracy Tang sees it differently. She has been handing out discounted rice balls to young protesters after hearing some skipped dinner amid family feuds over their participation in the movement.
“If we say that the economic deterioration is all related to the protests, it is extremely unfair,” Tang said. “We should shift the question to why youngsters are sacrificing themselves.
“As Hong Kongers with a conscience, we feel heartbroken for what has happened in the past two months. It has already affected the economy. But we will still offer discounts and high-quality food to Hong Kong people.”


Frank Kane’s Davos diary: Swiss efficiency lapses, but so far Davos lives up to the cuckoo-clock image

Updated 22 January 2020

Frank Kane’s Davos diary: Swiss efficiency lapses, but so far Davos lives up to the cuckoo-clock image

Davos comes and Davos goes, but over the last five decades, the one thing you can rely on is Swiss efficiency, right? The trains run on time, the cuckoo clocks chime on the hour, and the snow is swept from the pathways within minutes of the first fake falling. That is the common (even cliched) view of the Alpine nation and its showpiece event, the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos.

But — and whisper it very gently beneath your breath — maybe the legendary standards of Swiss efficiency are slipping as the WEF celebrates its 50th birthday. Evidence of a lapse from the highest levels of attainment came at Zurich Airport, when the luggage belt seized up inexplicably, and a full 10 minutes elapsedbefore a maintenance man came to attend to it. Tut tut.

Further signs of falling standards were on display at the railway station. The booking desks were besieged, as usual, by WEF delegates keen to complete the final leg of their journey up the Magic Mountain — a two-hour rail journey involving two stops at increasingly higher altitudes.

But only two of the 10 grills were manned, and the line grew longer and more grumpy with each passing minute. The mood was not helped when some trains were canceled and an extra hour was added to the journey. There was much muttering and dark looks shot when the train finally pulled into Klosters.

But thankfully, once you got to the heart of WEF-land, normal service was resumed. There had been a reasonable fall of snow that morning, which gave the place its usual fairytale appearance, but no traffic snarl ups as in previous years, when massive snowfall had caused the place to grind to a halt.

The shuttle buses that are the arterial life-channels of Davos — for those whose budgets do not extend to the black Mercedes limo — were running with their usual Swiss punctuality: Every 10 minutes or so, or even more frequently during peak rush hours.

These, in my experience over the past few years, are becoming frequently extended. Having battled through the registration process and attended one event at the nearby Seehof hotel, I imagined it would be easy to catch a ride on a virtually empty shuttle back to Klosters at around 9.30 p.m. But even at that hour, there was a long queue of unhappy souls waiting to make the same 20-minute trip to the other side of the mountain and their warm, welcoming hotel rooms.

It was the same thing on the opening morning of the annual meeting. I left my hotel — the homely and comfortable Cresta in Klosters — at 7 a.m. in the dark, and at minus 5 degrees Celsius. Again, there was a crowd of people standing huddled at the shuttle stop, shivering and stamping their feet.

The WEF shuttle service was up to the job, however, and I got into the Congress Hall with little trouble. The airport-style screening process — maybe a little more thorough than usual in view of the impending arrival of US President Donald Trump — passed smoothly. One request though: Please WEF, install some hot-air machines in the security hall. The body shock when you remove outer clothing to pass through the metal detectors was wicked.

Then down to business, which for a journalist at Davos means finding somewhere in the congress complex where you can rest a laptop while also providing a good people-watching vantage point. Over the years, I have learned that the Central Lounge — strategically located between the main plenary meeting halls and the (private) members lounge and bilateral rooms — is the perfect spot. Now, who will come my way in Davos 2020?