By Hans Ebert
@hanseberthk

No, not “everywhere is like this”. That’s just bullshit. But that’s the usual mantra preached by many of those running restaurants in Hong Kong that make Le Rue Morgue look alive and kicking. These empty and dead restaurants are the result of a lack of business sense, bad marketing, over supply and demand, and not understanding the wants and needs of today’s customers.

Yes, Lan Kwai Fong is not what it was with Allan Zeman, who turned this former refuse dump into the trendiest area in town during the Eighties, rightly or wrongly, dismissed by some as being “Yesterday’s Man”. The teetotaller is a very nice gentleman who has helped many over the decades.

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Allan Zeman and Lan Kwai Fong (LKF) aside- and the daft idea of launching LKF TV which is in the hands of a “dynamic duo” who wouldn’t know how to launch a paper plane- the glory days of Hong Kong are over. That’s what progress does. It bulldozes everything in its path. And it’s not just Hong Kong that’s been singled out to accommodate this daily beast called progress where many times the tail is wagging the dog and we find ourselves in The Selfie World of often unsociable social media. This is progress- a world where there’s too much of nothing to get hung up about and which become ill-conceived and addictive priorities in life.

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Meanwhile, the jury is still out on the business smarts of Zeman’s son Jonathan and his ability to have LKF rise like a Phoenix from the ashes in an area of Hong Kong that’s today as trendy and cool as some of those ageing local pop stars who refuse to come to grips with the reality that their heydays were the Sixties and Seventies and that Elvis left the building as a cheeseburger. Today, they’re just caricatures of everything that’s embarrassing about local showbiz. Hashtag sad. So is Lan Kwai Fong today. It’s back to being a dump.

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Despite LKF being a dead brand, the area still has behind closed doors the very private and extremely expensive gentlemen’s club and its Eastern European escorts for company, and Brickhouse, the only restaurant/bar that’s always full and attracts a regular and affluent international clientele.

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Brickhouse, described as a Mexican restaurant, is not in fear of a bad review on the website Open Rice because its clientele can make up their own minds. Unlike a number of what could be termed average restaurants with insecurity problems and suffer from shrinkage at the mere mention of this foodie website, Brickhouse is part of the very successful Maximal Group whose every outlet adheres to a standard that attracts those who know good from average and average from mediocre. Their clientele don’t need Open Rice reviews to steer them in the right direction.

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This is something many who open restaurants and bars in Hong Kong these days forget: These are not the Eighties or Nineties with loyal clientele, because those were the days where there was not much choice. But what was there were brilliant- Wyndham Street Thai, La Bodega, California, JJ’s and the Champagne Bar at the Grand Hyatt, TOTTS and the Dickens Bar at the Excelsior hotel, and a few years later, Marouche, the Lebanese restaurant opposite the club Drop- and where still today many do and is a testament to tacky excess.

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The area has also been allowed to become the breeding grounds for drug dealers from Africa who work this and surrounding areas, thanks to some huge potholes in Hong Kong’s immigration policy where refugee status is often granted to the dregs of the world.

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Today there are a buffet of choices available including just staying home and having some friends around for dinner who are not going to take selfies and upload food shots onto Facebook or Instagram. And in these harsh economic times that have certainly short circuited the entertainment expenses of many, we’re living much more frugally. The Wolf Of Wall Street has understood the meaning of restraint. It was a matter of time before Sinatra sang that the party’s over.

It’s coming up to 2018, people, Hong Kong has changed, society has changed, online dating has become the norm, monogamous relationships are something quite alien, like Educating Rita, Carrie Lam is undergoing on the job training to be Chief Executive, and also changed are eating habits and how one chooses to live their lives. The truly sad ones live it online while others do the maths and settle for financial security. It’s just the way it is.

Pining for the past or constantly reminiscing about how things were is not only sad, no one cares about anyone’s past glories. It’s all about the Now, one’s latest home run, and whether you have what it takes to succeed.

Running anything, even a vacuum cleaner, to only “break even” hardly shows great business acumen. But, speak to many in Hong Kong, and apart from “everywhere is the same”, it’s about their restaurant or bar “breaking even”. Breaking even is Breaking Bad. This is where marketing chutzpah, credibility, and having all the right connections including strong financial backers come into play plus looking at yourself as a brand.

For years, Harlan Goldstein peddled his brand with great relish and a cherry on top. Same with another larger than life character in Michel Adam who founded Fashion TV. They had very good runs. Today? They’ve run their course. They’re yesterday’s people- probably rich enough to retire, but irrelevant though they’ll pop up from time to time.

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At least those three amigos behind private members club M1NT, the disaster that it was in London and Hong Kong before gaining a new lease of life in Shanghai and led by the devilishly charming and Comeback Kid Alistair Paton, below, got out when the going was good. They realised the walls were closing in and that everyone saw through the smoke and mirrors.

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From the old days, the only man left standing is Gilbert Yeung and his consistently successful dragon-i. Why? It’s kept up with the times. And the business model of being Hong Kong’s home to the real and wannabe movers and shakers offering all the various trimmings and a club that continues to attract visiting international celebrities. These ingredients make dragon-i the success it’s always been. If the wheel ain’t broke…

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As for the rest of Hong Kong, there are pockets of success stories with some of the longtime dining concept groups more successful than others whereas there’s a young breed of entrepreneurs new to Hong Kong who know what attracts that upwardly mobile and International and Westernised Chinese clientele- a clientele who know what’s real and what’s not and often move in packs comprising beautiful people. Pretentious? Often. And affluent and extremely image conscious. Just visit a venue like Foxglove to see them at play in one of their favourite sandboxes.

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Let’s get real here: Nobody who knows their tapas from their tempuras, and organic food from microwaved left overs will frequent a Western restaurant where the chef has never been outside of this region. It’s not about keeping up pretences, it’s about wanting the best, or, at least, the most authentic and not settling for cheap knockoffs created from a borrowed cookbook. There’s nothing more authentic than Spanish, Italian or French cuisine prepared by those from these countries. It’s what everyone is willing to pay top dollar for. And this attracts like-minded people who don’t wish to “hang” with any “inferior breed”.

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This is why a restaurant like Rhoda in Sai Ying Poon appears to succeed. It’s detractors say, the restaurant is losing money every month, but having thoroughly enjoyed dinner there last week, Rhoda was flying- and so were the much smaller restaurants close by- small, but extremely popular because of the authenticity and creativity of the staff. If Rhoda is a losing proposition, it’s doing a great job of feigning success.

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With there having been an exodus over the past two years to Sai Ying Poon and Kennedy Town to escape the spiralling rents in Central, after the initial honeymoon period, there are now LOUD whispers that not all is well in both areas. The old local shops and restaurants that added so much character have been driven out as The Big Boss Of Rent has now caught up with these two areas. Again, this is progress for you and damn old world charm.

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We’ve said it here time and time again: One frequents or bothers checking out eateries because of the people they attract. Sometimes, the cuisine is almost secondary. Sometimes. But when there’s that combination of interesting people meeting interesting people, great food and the right ambience, everything comes together. It clicks.

If those who can stop criticising what they don’t understand, stop talking about how others are doing, and spend time fixing their own backyards, perhaps they’ll be more successful than they are currently. Perhaps. But the truth of the matter is that there’s supply and demand, and in Hong Kong today, the supply outweighs the demand.