The news has been on the horizon for awhile but now it's official: Hong Kong has entered a technical recession largely caused by the fall in retail spending and visitor arrivals.
Steps from Hong Kong’s main tourist strip, Ashfaqur Rahman’s tailor shop usually is a mainstay for tourists dropping in to peruse neatly arranged rolls of fabric and get measured for custom-made suits.
Business has nosedived since anti-government protests began in early June in the Asian financial center.
On Thursday, the government said Hong Kong’s economy shrank 3.2% in July-September from the previous quarter, pushing the city into a technical recession. The economy contracted 0.5% in April-June on a quarterly basis.
That makes two straight quarters of contraction.
The once-common lines of Chinese shoppers outside Hong Kong’s glittering luxury stores are gone. Jewelry stores have no customers and related businesses like transportation are also languishing.
Rahman said his monthly sales have tumbled 80% from an average of 200,000 Hong Kong dollars ($25,500) in better times.
His shop is tucked away in a passage off Nathan Road in the Tsim Sha Tsui district, which teems with luxury hotels and upscale jewelry and fashion boutiques set against the stunning backdrop of Victoria Harbor.
But on recent weekends the neighborhood has become a protest battle zone, with black-clad demonstrators clashing late into the night with riot police unleashing tear gas and water cannon.
“This is the worst we’ve seen,” said Rahman, a Bangladeshi immigrant who opened the shop 14 years ago. Sales now barely cover rent and he and his business partner are dipping into their own pockets to pay the salaries of their five staff. He’s not sure they’ll be able to carry on if there’s no resolution to the increasingly violent protests.
Restaurant managers, watch shop owners and jewelry salespeople across the district echoed the sentiment. In jeweler Tiffany’s massive showroom, there were at least 10 salespeople and no customers on a recent afternoon.
Thursday’s data underlined the problem, showing the city has slipped into an economic recession after contracting for a second straight quarter.
The forecast for the year is for a contraction.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warned of the bad news to come.
“The increasingly violent reality since June is hurting Hong Kong’s economy,” Lam said. Retail, catering, transport and other tourism-related industries have borne the brunt, she said.
Visitor numbers fell by 50% in the first half of October, usually a lucrative time because of a weeklong Chinese holiday. Retail sales fell by a quarter in August, the steepest annual drop on record.
The chaos has at times crippled major infrastructure, shutting down the international airport, subways, main roads and tunnels. Hong Kong’s government-owned rail operator, MTR, has been stopping evening subway service hours earlier than usual — a move that further reduces consumer spending.
“No one’s coming,” said Ah Chiu, manager of a watch shop. Sales fell by half in the past two months, he said.
Free spending mainland Chinese used to arrive on the weekends to buy the Bulova, Seiko and Movado watches he stocks.
Chiu, who refused to give his full name, said he had only sold one watch worth a few hundred Hong Kong dollars so far that day — a now-normal daily take.
He and his neighbors in a Tsim Sha Tsui shopping arcade used to stay open even during protests. Now, they all roll down their metal shutters and leave at the first sign of any disturbance, crimping any further chances of sales for the day.
“Calling for help won’t work. No one can help you. We can’t see the end,” he said, an air of resignation in his voice. “We’re eating money now.”
Photo credit: An empty cosmetic shop at a shopping district in Hong Kong. Vincent Yu / AP Photo