Hong Kong – Then and Now

I’ve visited Hong Kong twice in the last 6 months, and what a difference half a year can make.

Back in October, the Covid hotel quarantine programme for visitors and returning residents had just ended (which largely prompted my visit). I still had to undergo a PCR test on arrival, plus regular testing for the first 7 days of my stay. In addition, for the first 3 days I was unable to dine-in at cafes, restaurants and bars, or visit public places (museums, cinemas, gyms, etc.), until I had a blue “all clear” QR code on a tracking app. Masks were still mandatory for everyone, indoors and outside, but the QR check-in system was only sporadically enforced.

Of course, this being Hong Kong, the 3-day ban did not prevent me from taking taxis or public transport, going to work, or shopping. So, earn, spend, travel!

Compared to my previous visit in August 2019, there were no signs of any public protests (thanks to ongoing legal and political measures), nor many visitors from mainland China or overseas. The number of expats out and about in Central was well down (although I suspect a lot of people were still working from home), and I don’t recall there being many crowds even during peak shopping and business hours in the CBD.

I visited M+, the amazing new art museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District – which was probably the most popular location I saw during my stay, in part because admission was still free. There was a really interesting and charming exhibition of art and design in Hong Kong since 1945, from the context of cultural, social, commercial, industrial and political developments.

On a past visit, the ground had not yet been broken on the Cultural precinct, and the only art exhibition on show was a series of pop-up installations housed in re-purposed shipping containers (a link to Hong Kong’s important role as an entrepôt?).

Staying near Clearwater Bay also meant being among fewer people, and even gave an opportunity to visit a beach I had never seen before – where local residents had posted signs to encourage visitors not to despoil this small and natural idyll amid Hong Kong’s ever-expanding reclaimed land development.

Talking to some local contacts, there was a suggestion that the key motivation for scrapping the hotel quarantine programme in October was due to the Hong Kong FinTech Week being held the following month along with the much-postponed Hong Kong Rugby Sevens tournament (both expected to attract lots of bankers, brokers, traders and investors…). Yes, in Hong Kong, money still talks.

Fast forward to March, and my latest visit was a stark contrast. Not only were airfares much more expensive than late last year, but the number of visitors (especially from the Mainland) had also boomed. Now that there were no PCR tests or mask mandates, and as domestic tourism has opened up, it seems everyone was desperate to get to Hong Kong. Apparently, in the 30 days since the mask mandate was lifted, 1.5 million people had entered the Special Administrative Region, compared to the few thousand monthly visitors in previous months.

During March alone, Hong Kong hosted the Clockenflap festival, Art Basel Hong Kong, Art Central, a major golf tournament and the WOW Web3 Summit, as well as the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens restored its regular (and rightful) spot on the international sporting calendar.

Out and about in Central on a Friday night at the Tai Kwun art and entertainment precinct almost felt like old times, with people competing for taxis along Hollywood Road. I also got my fill of art – Joan Miró at the HK Museum of Art, Yayoi Kusama at M+, modern Chinese art at the JC Contemporary, and installations and pop-up shows at the K11 and Landmark malls.

From a business perspective, most of my meetings centred on the recent consultation process for Hong Kong’s proposed regulations on Virtual Assets, due to come into effect in June this year. It’s expected to boost the number of licensed crypto exchanges and brokerages operating in Hong Kong, and is a significant leap forward compared to past conversations I have had on the topic, where there was a general reluctance to engage in any meaningful discussions. Now it seems, whether encouraged by Beijing, or seeing the regulatory push back on crypto in the USA, Hong Kong is seeking to become a regional and global hub for all things web3, DeFi, tokenisation and digital currencies. (Not content with the WOW Web3 Summit in March, Hong Kong hosted the Web3 Festival earlier in April.)

Hong Kong is usually very good at reinventing its economic profile following business downturns and market setbacks – especially in the areas of trade, technology, commerce and finance. Perhaps the shift towards embracing virtual assets is simply a pragmatic move. While a large part of GDP is still driven by property and traditional finance, there is a recognition among some that the future is digital…

As much as things change in Hong Kong, they also largely stay the same. Back in October, there was 100% compliance with the mask mandate – but the vast majority of passengers ignored the compulsory seat belt regulation on buses. A breach of the former would have attracted a HK$1,000 fine; the latter, HK$5,000 and 3 months’ imprisonment.

Finally, talking of masks, it’s not that long ago that masked protestors on the streets of Hong Kong were a major legal and political issue. Since then, wearing any sort of mask on a public march or demonstration has been illegal. While I was in Hong Kong last month, the city witnessed its first authorised protest march in several years (about the environmental impact of land reclamation). In a new twist on the right of assembly, march numbers were strictly limited, and all demonstrators had to wear a visible number to identify them. From the TV coverage I watched, the march stewards contained the moving protest behind a rope cordon – so that participants did not literally step out of line.

(On this last trip, I also took a side-trip to Macau – more on that next time.)

Next week: Revisiting Macau – Asia’s Casino Theme Park


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