THE DARK SIDE OF HONG KONG NIGHT LIFE 1

“It’s ninety percent perception and ten percent luck”.

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While dining at a restaurant I hadn’t frequented in a while, its owner spoke openly about the Hong Kong F&B industry to me, and why some survive, and others open and close faster than a hooker’s legs at peak hour.

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One of the hoodoos affecting many outlets in Hong Kong are the totally off-the-map rents where, to some, simply breaking even is good. Yes, it makes as much sense as saying, “This month, we expected to be down 5 percent, but are only down 2 percent”, and why so many persist with losing businesses. Lack of grey matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye? Perhaps.

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Guess it’s something like the struggling artist who is happy to struggle for their art. But running a restaurant or bar or club is not art. There might be an art to making it a successful business, but it’s not art.

As for my friend, he clings to the belief that in Hong Kong, it’s not location, location, location that matters- and the explosion of new restaurants bears this out as any “location” in Hong Kong is only ten minutes away from anywhere- but how perception- the image of the customers it attracts because of the image of management being key. Follow me here.

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To him, with this USP, the bargaining power with landlords is greater whereas success attracts success in the role of investors- or those looking to back a losing business.

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“Let’s not be coy to admit that a Western face to greet you, or an overseas Chinese speaking fluent English will not go unnoticed by customers and who will play a big role in return visits,” he says. “One more thing: When my landlords come to visit any of my venues, there is a pride of ownership in that their property is attracting the right clientele.” Big headed, silly, or just being honest?

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Having watched a number of restaurants and bars happy to plod along, and me no longer prepared to frequent them when I have nothing in common with its regulars, it comes back to the fact that people make any venue. Interesting people attract other interesting people same as attractive people tend to travel in packs.

No matter how harsh or superficial it sounds, Hong Kong has always been about “face”: You are judged by the company you keep and where you keep company WITH this company, something that goes back to the days of “discos” like Canton, Manhattan, The Scene and Pastels and restaurants like The Front Page and Casa Mexicana.

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(Canton Disco back in the day)

So, is it “image” that makes one restaurant, bar or club more successful than the other- and a lack of “image” that makes one an also-ran? In some instances, yes.

Jockeys, for example, who are tasting the good life for the first time, carefully pick and choose where they wish to be seen. It adds to their “status” with face-conscience owners as much as the designers clothes they wear, the cigars they smoke, the champagne they drink, and the brand of cars they drive.

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Walk around the Central area that includes Sheung Wan, Soho and Lan Kwai Fong, and there will be some restaurants packed to the rafters and others as lonely as Eleanor Rigby on a winter’s day with winner and loser located right next to each other.

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So much for “location”, and so much for being told by the losing side, “It’s like this everywhere. Everyone has left town for the holidays.” If so, “everybody” must be holidaying in the restaurants just up the road as there are people falling outta trees to get in. Denial is not only the name of a river in Egypt.

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In Hong Kong, there are a few investors who have an open tap when it comes to starting up new restaurants serving what can be labelled “three star fare” with that horrible pimping for business by staff at the entrance. It’s shades of Pinky’s Tattoo in Wanchai and those Nigerian pusher men peddling their wares in Central.

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They overpay for rents and overpay for everything as quite a few are there to lose money. It’s a form of business also prevalent in the local entertainment industry.

Yes, it’s more of what’s pictured below and, gawd knows, how much I wish the SCMP’s almost over-productive food writer Susan Jung tackles THIS recipe in the success of a restaurant. Come on, Susan, put that cow down, and review this area of Hong Kong’s “foodie” business.

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On the other hand, there are the established restaurants with a loyal and established customer base that continues from one generation to the next.

A Madras Chicken Curry at Jimmy’s Kitchen will never go outta style in the same way dragon-i will always be the Club to see and be seen.

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Owner Gilbert Yeung and his posse have worked hard to build the dragon i brand and they’re not about to let go. Gilbert is smart. Some of his other businesses might have been less than successful, but every visiting celebrity has been to dragon-i.

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It’s said that after a visit to dragon-i, Pharrell Williams was even inspired to write a track about “all the ladies standing in line for the bathroom.” It’s where the wannabes to The Beautiful People Party can be seen shamelessly and desperately wishing to belong.

While dragon-i keeps rolling, it’s the Johnny Come Latelies along Wyndham Street trying to clone it- and Yeung- that fail and end up being losers dependent on the chump change of other losers unable to get past the velvet rope of hope.

Here we come to a lack of originality, and those without the required skill sets, trying to fit into a customer-driven business- but completely outta touch with the customer.

Dining out in Hong Kong today means being spoilt for choice. Thai, Indian, Italian, French, Greek, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Chinese restaurants are everywhere, some better than others, and others, perhaps not that good, but highly successful.

It’s back to image and perception and a bulging roller deck of loyal customers and not “foodies” who Instagram their food as if on vacation in Ibiza.

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Look at Da Domenico, supposedly located at 25 Tung Lo Wan Road, but nowhere near it and impossible to find- but always packed.

The menu is whatever is recommended by the manager and with a sparse but quality wine list being the only alcohol served.

Why is it frequented by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in Hong Kong- and the city’s leading jockeys and horse trainers. It’s prestigious, the food is always of the same high standard and then there’s the owner- Alessandro- outgoing, engaging and mamma mia Italiano.

There’s also the comfort in knowing that your Italian meal is “endorsed” by a real, ‘live’ Italian, which means a helluva lot to those who wish to “go Italian”, but are not exactly sure what the difference is between a pasta and a Hasta La Vista, baby.

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Apart from being everyone’s idea of what a bona fide Italian restaurant should be like, with Alessandro as its face, Da Domenicco is all about “brand recall and loyalty.”

It’s what Jimmy’s Kitchen continues to be and Wyndham Street Thai and, before that, Fernando’s Hideaway once were.

Those who ran and run restaurants like these know who their customers and their customers know who they are and exactly what to expect- including the clientele.

It’s a status thing, an age thing, and a comfort thing. No instagrammers and iPhones allowed. That’s a different generation- and a consumer market comprising dabblers.

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These are very different eateries to those with no plans or strategy and who throw everything against the wall- including the kitchen sink- hoping to hell something sticks.

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Of course, what has changed radically in Hong Kong are the number of restaurants that have popped up like zits. It’s a big difference to “back in the day” when there was quality as opposed to quantity.

It’s why so many restaurants today start off as the plat du jour and quickly become a white elephant.

Remember all the fuss about Jamie Oliver opening a restaurant in Hong Kong? And Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant? And The Pawn? And Soho-mama? Who talks about any of them today?

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(Sohofama at PMQ)

Think about what were flavours of the day just two years ago? Are they still around? Who knows, and who cares?

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At the moment, there’s an overkill of restaurant reviews, foodie bloggers and, of course, the buffet of choices serving anything and everything one might feel like eating. Even Gilbert Grape.

It’s enough to say, Enough’s enough, or as Monty Python’s Mr Creosote put it, “F*** off! I’m stuffed” and return to having people over for dinner a compulsory once a week exercise in getting back to some form of normality.

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Going out in Hong Kong is no longer fun. It’s a chore. It’s not worth the hassle. Who wants to keep up with pretences along with trying to keep up with the Joneses, the Wongs, the Chans and all those “dudes” way too eager to make an impression?

There’s a sense of desperateness, phoniness, angst, jealousy and negativity out there. It’s etched on the faces of too many to miss.

Who needs it and who wants to be around angst-riddled people staring into a glass that’s always half empty?

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Hans Ebert
Chairman and CEO
We-Enhance Inc and Fast Track Global Ltd
www.fasttrack.hk