HONG KONG — I don't see any joy on the streets in what was once Asia’s happiest city. Six straight months of violent protests have stripped Hong Kong of its once bubbly innocence. It’s weary citizens have little to smile about anymore.
I don’t recognize this Hong Kong. I don’t like this Hong Kong.
The colourful neighbourhoods and market streets where I’ve joyfully rubbed shoulders with locals for the past 20 years are virtually empty when I visit in late November.
Officially, tourism has dropped 40 per cent since the pro-democracy protests started in May of 2019. Unofficially, locals tell me that drop is more like 60 per cent.
The eclectic districts I like to explore most, Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui and Wan Chi, have born the brunt of the protests and are no longer recognizable to me.
Many of the small hawker shops in those districts, where I’ve eaten dim sum and slurped wonton soup, now stand ransacked and boarded.
Above: Months of continuous violence has reduced tourism to Hong Kong by as much as 60 per cent. Many hotels are left empty.
The narrow streets surrounding them are strewn with bricks torn out of the sidewalks by protesters and used as weapons against police. Lamp posts lay toppled at intersections like toy soldiers. The glittering office towers in Central are scarred with angry words.
Police officers who once patrolled these neighbourhoods in crisp blue uniforms now stand behind barricades in full riot gear.
Hong Kong now sits under an umbrella of uncertainty.
A taxi driver named Karl tells me he’s going to immigrate to Taiwan with his wife.
“Hong Kong is no more,” says the cabbie, who grumbles about lost business.
Others echo the same sentiment. Many want to immigrate. Canada, Australia and the U.S. seem to be the favoured places of those wanting to leave.
Few people here see a future for Hong Kong.
Left: Armed police in full rot gear patrol Hong Kong's tourist areas. Right: Protestors pulled up sidewalk bricks and used them as weapons.
“China will gobble us up. Our freedom will be lost forever. I won’t stay here,” a young man serving me at the Apple store in the stylish IFC Mall laments.
Once Asia’s most affluent city, Hong Kong slipped into recession this past summer thanks to the protests and for the first time in memory, rents for office and retail space have dropped noticeably. Many businesses are planning moves to other cities, as well.
The city’s ex-pat population is scared.
“I’ve lived here for 10 years,” says Robert, a banking executive originally from London. “I married a girl from Hong Kong and our two children were born here. We don’t want to leave but the Hong Kong Stock Exchange is in free fall and I fear for my job and our future.”
The Chinese stopped coming to Hong Kong after several of them were assaulted by protesters. That’s had a devastating affect on the high-end retail shops gathered in Central and Kowloon. Many designer shops have had to lay off staff or force them to take early vacations.
The border crossing between Hong Kong and neighbouring Shenzhen, China, which normally processes over 100,000 people on weekends, has seen that number dwindle to a precious few. Where once dozens of customs officers were needed to handle the flow, I see only one the day I make the crossing.
Hotel lobbies stand empty. Even 5-star properties have been forced to reduce staff and rates. Some are in danger of slipping into bankruptcy.
Left: Hundreds of thousands pour into the streets on a weekly basis. Right: The gleaming towers on Central are scarred with angry words.
A number of Hong Kong travel companies have been forced out of business. More are expected to follow.
The city’s famed Michelin-star restaurants look like ghost towns.
People are weary to take Hong Kong’s famed subway, a frequent target of the demonstrators and police, where some of the most violent clashes have taken place.
Always known for its vibrant nightlife, streets in playful areas like Lan Kwai Fong are emptied every night now by 10 p.m.
City and tourism officials try to put a brave face on the situation. They say Hong Kong is resilient and will bounce back.
However, now that Hong Kong has become a political football that’s being tossed around by China and the United States, prospects of a resolution to the problems here are not good.
The reality is that the Hong Kong I’ve grown to love is no more. It’s a city at war with itself. And tourism is one of the biggest casualties of this war.