- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

HONG KONG Aficionados of "yum cha" are having to go farther afield for their traditional snacks as, one after another, established teahouses shut, victims of the economic downturn.

For most, the age-old Chinese tradition of yum cha (literally, "drinking tea") is not just an opportunity to satisfy hunger and thirst, it's a time to socialize, catch up with relatives and friends or even form business connections.

Families and friends chat while sipping tea and eating "dim sum," dumplinglike snacks served in bamboo steamers, while retired people spend their mornings reading the day's newspapers over breakfast.

For rich "tai-tais" (wives), yum cha is an opportunity to catch up on gossip and rumors.

But these opportunities are shrinking as Hong Kong struggles to steer its way out of the economic doldrums that have persisted since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Some 20 Chinese restaurants have closed down so far this year and industry insiders see little chance of a recovery anytime soon.

Last month, old customers of the Good World Restaurant in western Kowloon gathered for one last time as the eatery closed its doors after 28 years in business.

In June, Treasure Group, one of Hong Kong's biggest and oldest restaurant chains, collapsed, leaving 1,500 employees seeking work and thousands of customers looking for a good place to meet and eat.

"I have to cross the harbor now to go for dim sum," said retired businessman Wong Tak, 60, as he and his friends walked down to the North Point ferry for their "jo cha," or morning tea.

"There used to be several teahouses to choose from around this area, but they've all gone, one by one," he said.

Before, when one restaurant shut, another took its place, but now landlords prefer to replace them with shopping malls, Mr. Wong noted.

"Times have changed," said his friend, Tsang Pak, 62.

While in the past he would have dim sum every day, now he goes only once or twice a week because, like many Hong Kong residents, most of his wealth is tied up in property whose value has fallen more than 60 percent since 1997.

Government figures show receipts for the restaurant sector were the equivalent of $1.7 billion in U.S. dollars in the second quarter, down 6 percent from last year.

"There are more restaurants closing than being reported in the newspapers," said a spokesman for the Association of Chinese Restaurants. "Business is difficult, with many people unemployed."

William Mark, head of the Federation of Hong Kong Restaurants Owners, described the business as "too depressing," noting the change in eating habits, with young people choosing fast food rather than traditional yum cha.

"The restaurant industry is closely related to the general economic situation," Mr. Mark said, adding, "We can't hope for a miracle" as rent and wage costs remain high. Faced with the difficult environment, Mr. Mark said, some restaurants are cutting down on food costs.

"This is very unhealthy," he said, pointing out that it could harm Hong Kong's status as one of the world's culinary centers.

With nearly 10,000 restaurants in the small territory, it's natural for some to close down, said Tommy Cheung, chairman of the Hong Kong Catering Industry Association.

Even so, "I'm not confident," he said. "The current market situation is certainly bad."

But for Mr. Wong and Mr. Tsang heading across the harbor, a visit to the teahouse gives them a sense of community, and the habit is hard to break.

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