Vanishing act: absent mainland Chinese shoppers, closed stores turn Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui East into Covid-19 ghost town

Denise Tsang
·9-min read

Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui East is a pale shadow of the bustling shopping and eating hub it was before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived and changed everything.

Gone are the crowds of visitors thronging its narrow streets, the mainlanders rolling trolley bags filled with cosmetics, clothes and accessories, the people queuing at popular restaurants or packing ageing shopping centres and newer upmarket malls alike.

“Doom and gloom have overtaken the area,” said Gigi Tam, the 62-year-old owner of a bridal shop in Houston Centre, along Mody Road. “I’ve never seen such a bleak situation in my 30 years here. It’s so upsetting.”

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Before Covid-19, visitors from mainland China spilled out of the high-speed rail link terminus in West Kowloon and headed here. More arrived by the China Ferry Terminal or the MTR East Rail line, and hundreds of cross-border coaches dropped passengers off outside major shopping centres.

Closed shops line once-thriving Granville Road in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood. Photo: Nora Tam
Closed shops line once-thriving Granville Road in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood. Photo: Nora Tam

They vanished with the pandemic, which halted travel, closed borders and brought a host of restrictions on Hongkongers and visitors alike.

Waves of Covid-19 infections that have swept the city since January of last year have dealt a massive blow to Tsim Sha Tsui East’s ageing shopping centres and streetside stores that some regard as a throwback to the last century.

Signs of the devastated retail and tourism scene were everywhere in the area when the Post went there last week, just before Lunar New Year, traditionally a peak shopping period.

At Houston Centre, one of the largest and oldest commercial and retail properties, half the 16 restaurants were closed for good, while many shops had been turned into storage space or small offices for start-ups.

Along Mody Road, most street-level shops appeared to have gone out of business, their shuttered exteriors covered with graffiti.

They look outdated, do not have any top restaurants and have no coordinated promotional efforts. I don’t have a reason to go there

Chinese University’s Simon Lee

At Park Lane Shopper’s Boulevard, more than 20 of the 60 shops along the strip were empty. Those still open had posters screaming “Last Chance Sale”, “Further Reductions”, or “Clearance Sale”.

Over on Granville Road, about 30 street-level stores were shuttered and advertising for new tenants. Several upstairs gyms, cafes and beauty salons had their lights off in the middle of the day.

Compared to its bustling past, it appeared to be a ghost town.

Finance company boss Francis Lun, 70, was taken aback when he came from his Happy Valley home on February 7 to pick up a turnip cake for the Lunar New Year.

Gazing at the many shuttered stores, he said: “The situation is too stunning to describe.”

Simon Lee Siu-po, co-director of the international business and Chinese enterprise programme at Chinese University (CUHK), said many shopping centres in Tsim Sha Tsui East still “smell of the 1980s and 1990s”.

“They look outdated, do not have any top restaurants and have no coordinated promotional efforts,” he said. “I don’t have a reason to go there.”

They are nothing like the neighbourhood’s more shiny draws, including the trendy K11 Musea at the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, and Harbour City, Hong Kong’s largest shopping centre, on Canton Road.

Queues have been found at Harbour City continuously since last summer, when it rescued its business by pumping millions of dollars into a cash coupon redemption programme, which aimed at pushing shoppers to spend every day. The programme was extended repeatedly, and will now run through Easter in April.

K11 Musea, meanwhile, sought to bolster business by offering workshops involving luxury brands, and aligning some promotions with charities.

Eerily quiet Wing On Plaza

The prominent signs outside Wing On Plaza, next to The Kowloon Shangri-La hotel at Tsim Sha Tsui East, said its shops were offering up to 50 per cent off. But the department store appeared quiet on February 9.

Ko, a 63-year-old woman who would only give her surname, was shopping for new clothes for her grandson for the Lunar New Year.

“I don‘t mind that the shop is empty, it gives me and the shop staff more time to chat,” she said. “They know the good deals too.”

She said she preferred to come to the store instead of shopping online because she wanted to be sure she got clothes in the right size for her three-year-old grandson.

Hong Kong retail sales plunge by record 24.3 per cent amid pandemic in 2020

A security guard ensured that everyone entering Wing On’s flagship store, which occupies three floors of the building, checked their temperature and used alcohol gel for their hands.

His tally sheet showed about 150 people going in and out of the department store every hour.

“It’s the highest foot traffic since the start of the year, because people want to buy new clothes to celebrate the new year,” said the guard, who declined to be named. “Sometimes people come back to see if there are more discounts.”

Three more floors in the building are occupied by other tenants, but only a handful were open that day – two jewellery shops and a small retailer of organic products.

At around 4pm that day, there were hardly any shoppers.

The industry is breathing its last, and we hope we can catch up and earn some revenue when evening dine-in services resume after February 17

Simon Wong, president, Institution of Dining Art

‘Bumpy road to recovery’

The woes of retailers in Tsim Sha Tsui East reflect the battering Hong Kong’s tourism, retail and restaurant sectors have received from the Covid-19 pandemic that first hit the city in January 2020.

Visitor arrivals plunged from a high of 65.1 million in 2018 to just 3.56 million last year. Retail sales fell a record 24.3 per cent year on year while restaurant receipts tumbled 29.4 per cent, the steepest annual decline on record.

Much now depends on the city’s programme to vaccinate the population, according to Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce CEO George Leung Siu-kay, who hopes the government can speed things up.

“The road to recovery is likely to be bumpy, depending on how long it takes to complete the immunisation programme,” he said.

He forecast that retail sales would swing around and grow by about 1.5 per cent this year, if social-distancing curbs were relaxed.

While Covid-19 has spelled the end of numerous shops in Tsim Sha Tsui East, it has meant opportunity for some cash-rich landlords. Photo: Nora Tam
While Covid-19 has spelled the end of numerous shops in Tsim Sha Tsui East, it has meant opportunity for some cash-rich landlords. Photo: Nora Tam

He also forecast the city’s economy would register positive growth of 3.5 per cent this year, compared with an estimated 6 per cent contraction last year.

Others are pinning their hopes on the government easing pandemic restrictions that have hit restaurants, bars, cinemas, beauty salons, massage parlours, game rooms and other businesses.

Some have had their opening hours curtailed severely, while others have had to remain closed since December last year. Restaurants, for example, can only serve tables of two in the daytime and cannot have dine-in customers after 6pm.

The government said on Tuesday it would loosen the curbs on Thursday.

That day cannot come soon enough for Simon Wong Kit-lung, president of one of the city’s largest business groups for the catering industry, the 700-member Institution of Dining Art.

“The industry is breathing its last, and we hope we can catch up and earn some revenue when evening dine-in services resume after February 17,” he said.

‘Landlords planning a shake-up’

Even if business picks up through the year, what happens to the empty stores in the ageing shopping centres and high streets of Tsim Sha Tsui East – along with Causeway Bay and Mong Kok – remains an open question.

According to property consultant JLL, the rising number of vacancies has pushed rents down, with high street shop rents plunging 36.8 per cent last year while those in prime shopping centres fell 31.6 per cent.

“We expect the retail market to bottom out in 2021, driven by mid-to-mass market retailers on the back of the relatively stable domestic demand with the worst behind us,” it said.

“Sales have been cut to the bone and the next move is up.”

Dennis Cheng Tak-ming, a senior sales director at Ricacorp (CIR) Properties, predicted a shake-up in smaller shopping centres and streets now dotted with vacant lots.

They are capitalising on the high vacancy rate and lower selling prices to buy up shops and wait for a better time to get big-time tenants

Dennis Cheng, Ricacorp (CIR) Properties

“The situation will improve after Lunar New Year, as some landlords have signed on new tenants to start their leases in March,” he said, adding that the city would see a few new restaurants popping up.

In stricken shopping streets such as Granville Road and Chatham Road South in Tsim Sha Tsui, some cash-rich landlords are strategising to buy up vacant shops along the same row to develop and attract new tenants over the next three to five years.

“They are capitalising on the high vacancy rate and lower selling prices to buy up shops and wait for a better time to get big-time tenants,” Cheng said.

At Houston Centre, bridal shop owner Gigi Tam said she could not believe how bad the past year had been. She returns to her 200 sq ft shop only once or twice a week to clean the place.

She worked at a bridal shop in Tsim Sha Tsui East for 20 years before her dream came true and she opened Kagi Weddings Bridal Gown 10 years ago.

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She was getting by until the pandemic caused business to dry up. She said the past year had been the worst since she struck out on her own, with many couples postponing their weddings.

One client’s wedding was put off repeatedly beginning with the social unrest of 2019 and continuing through the pandemic. It finally happened on February 14.

It was an order worth several thousand dollars, and dragged out for one-and-a-half years. She added with a laugh that this wedding took so long, she became friends with the client.

Hoping for a turnaround to come soon, she said: “I have been living on my savings and paying about HK$7,000 in rent to the landlord every month while earning nothing in the past year.”

But she is not about to call it quits yet.

“I want to continue the business until I am not able to. It’s what I do best,” she said.

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This article Vanishing act: absent mainland Chinese shoppers, closed stores turn Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui East into Covid-19 ghost town first appeared on South China Morning Post

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