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


Opening Up…

This week, Melbourne is trying to get back to some semblance of normality, following 11 weeks of the current lock-down. But it’s far from “business as usual”.

Based on casual observations, people were desperate to queue up for personal grooming services, restaurants and outdoor shopping. (I did see at least one classic mullet, but I wasn’t sure if it was a fashion statement or just another case of Covid hair…)

Despite the latest changes announced by the Victorian Government over the past week, the ongoing public health provisions mean there will still be a “work from home” directive, retail and restaurants will be subject to density limits (and vax certificates) and masks will be required indoors.

One cafe in my neighbourhood, which has kept going during lock-down with serving takeaways, is deferring opening up for dining-in because they can’t get enough staff. This demand for talent within the hospitality sector means that employers are having to offer sign-on bonuses and higher wages.

While this should be good news for job seekers, the resulting upward pressure on staffing costs will likely trigger a rise in inflation (and higher interest rates?), and possibly further disruptions in supply chains.

Added hiring shortages will come from those employees who have used the lock-down to reassess their career options, and have decided to change jobs – also known as the “Great Resignation”.

Even among those employees who are returning to the office, many of them are only intending to be there 2-3 days a week. This will create a mid-week bulge in the CBD, with various knock-on effects: traffic jams, cramped public transport, and erratic trading patterns for small businesses in retail and hospitality. Employers will also be stressing how they maintain productivity levels with the adoption of extended weekends.

Finally, some industries such as tourism and international travel will take several months to get back to pre-pandemic levels – expect to see steep prices while capacity and supply remain constrained.

Next week: Crypto Regulation in Australia



Living in limbo

Please forgive the self-indulgence, but not only is this the 9th week of Melbourne’s 6th lock-down, we now hold the world record for total number of days under “stay at home” orders. I know we love our sporting superlatives and gold medals down-under, but surely this is one title that even the most fanatic supporter of our fair city wished we had conceded (to Sydney, perhaps…).Of course, I understand why we find ourselves in this situation – the government fears that the COVID pandemic will overwhelm the local health system if the virus is allowed to run riot, and before a sufficient proportion of the population has been vaccinated. Clearly, lock-down has helped to reduce the total number of cases and deaths per capita compared to many other countries. And vaccinations appear to be mitigating the impact of the Delta variant, depending on what numbers you track.

However, while most people I know have generally been supportive of the public health measures, the effect of continued lock-down is taking its toll on peoples’ income, mental health and general well-being. It feels that our collective nerves are frayed from the shifting goal posts (in terms of targets and milestones), the continued in-fighting and bickering between the States and the Commonwealth (and with each other), the constant blame games, and the drip-feed of information (despite the daily press conferences and media updates).

This current lock-down, which was initially expected to last a week(!), has been particularly hard to endure. Especially so for the majority of people who, hitherto, have been prepared to buy in to the lock-down measures (albeit somewhat reluctantly and not necessarily willingly). But to be told by our political leaders and their public servants that the growth in case numbers (and the lock-down extension) is due to members of the public breaching the public health orders (“AFL Grand Final parties”) or not complying with the lock-down measures (“household visits”) is extremely galling for those “doing the right thing” – it’s all stick, no carrot. At the same time, in the vast majority of alleged infringements there does not appear to be any consistent approach to penalties or other consequences. (So, why bother with compliance, since the lack of enforcement can lead to the law falling into disrepute?)

The government has long since given up the idea of achieving zero cases, yet seems unwilling to give much relief to people who are fully vaccinated and who have consistently observed the lock-down measures, other than the prospect of small picnics outdoors. Increasingly, the lock-down itself feels like a blunt instrument – why not apply it in a more targeted fashion, rather than a blanket measure? By now, it looks like a game of whack-a-mole as outbreaks keep popping up again (and again) in the same “settings”.

I appreciate that the government wants to keep us safe, and overall I’m extremely grateful that we have not seen the sorts of health statistics witnessed elsewhere. But by maintaining the prolonged lock-down, our elected leaders and their civil servants risk wearing out our patience and burning up any goodwill they may have accrued in the process.

We are living in a sort of limbo, with severe restrictions on the one hand, and uncertainty/anxiety on the other. Among other things, the current situation makes it very difficult to plan any trips to visit family and friends inter-state, let alone abroad. (I’ve not seen my immediate family overseas for nearly 3 years.) While I am extremely thankful that I don’t work in the “front line”, and I am very fortunate in being able to work from home, the inability to meet in person after such a lengthy hiatus does mean some of those relationships have become impaired or have become a little harder to manage and maintain.

Anyway, as I look forward to a second birthday under lock-down, I try not to look too far ahead, maintain the daily routine and walks (and enjoy the occasional glass of wine).

Next week: “What Should We Build?”  



I got nothing

After nearly six weeks in Melbourne’s current lock-down (#6 if anyone is keeping count…), I have nothing to blog about this week.

The lack of external stimulus has finally beaten me, and I have nothing much to say. The muse is gone, the well is dry, and there’s only so much you can say about being confined to quarters.

One benefit of this enforced inactivity has been the opportunity to catch up on recent movies, that I either missed at the cinema, or which were not widely distributed upon release.

A few of these films seem perfectly suited to these times – mainly because nothing much happens. These particular stories are more concerned with slow observation and self-reflection.

In “The Truffle Hunters”, there is a stillness bordering on stagnation, as a group of elderly men respond in different ways to the changes being foisted upon their cottage industry. It’s not just the fact that their traditional way of life is coming to an end – it’s the nagging inevitability of their situation, and the growing realisation that there’s probably nothing they could have done to avoid this happening.

Stagnation of a different kind informs the main characters in “Another Round”. They see their lives as being stuck in a rut (although outwardly, they have a comfortable existence), and they feel relatively helpless. Until, that is, they stumble upon the idea of a social experiment, which involves maintaining a consistent blood-alcohol level. They embark on the project to see if they can enliven their mundane existence, with vastly different results.

A similar sense of helplessness pervades “Brad’s Status”. Similarly dissatisfied with his life, and with a growing awareness that perhaps he has misread key social relationships, a middle-aged father uses a trip with his son to re-assess his friends, reflect on his values, and re-connect with what sustains him. He also finds contentment in his achievements, and achieves a sense of acceptance about what he can and can’t change or control.

Finally, a journey of self-realisation also befalls the protagonist in “People Places Things”. When his marriage collapses (and he didn’t see it coming…), our hero finds a way to use his work to explore and resolve this apparent failure to read the situation. In the process, he learns how to communicate his feelings, and more importantly, he gets comfortable with who he is.

Next week: No-code product development