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Welcome to the Restaurant With a Front-Row Seat at the Hong Kong Protests

3 minute read

Jazz music plays in an elegant dining room and multilingual snatches of conversation can be heard. But outside the window, chaos reigns and great palls of tear gas hang over the street as black-clad protesters fight a pitched battle with police. Welcome to Grappa’s—the Italian restaurant with a ringside seat at the Hong Kong protests.

An extraordinary, almost surreal video filmed from inside the restaurant—a long-standing fixture on Hong Kong’s dining scene—shows an Oct. 6 clash between anti-government protesters and police on Queen’s Road East. Opposite is the swanky Three Pacific Place office complex. The area is on the front line of the Hong Kong protests because it is near Hong Kong’s main government offices and legislature. Thousands of protesters rally regularly at these official buildings before they are driven away.

Pursued by police firing tear gas, protesters often retreat down Queen’s Road East, a convenient side street that is home to Grappa’s and many other businesses. Of course, on most days of the week there are no protests and customers dine in perfect safety, but when there are disturbances, Grappa’s provides a front-row perch for anybody unfortunate enough to be caught inside.

In the video, voices can be heard providing an excited narrative. “Oh, [a projectile] hit the umbrella! You can hear it!” somebody says in Cantonese. “They’re using water to put out the tear gas,” remarks another with interest, as though commenting on a sporting match.

But then the bravado quickly gives way to concern. “Oh my god, I can’t breathe anymore,” says a Philippine-accented voice in English. “It’s too much.”

“Hey can’t you smell it [tear gas]?” the Cantonese speaker asks. “Of course I can!” somebody replies, before being told: “Quickly! Cover your nose!”

The stark reality is that the protests have been disastrous for Hong Kong’s hospitality sector. Takings have plummeted as most people prefer to cook at home or get their food delivered. Restaurants have been laying off staff, asking them to take unpaid leave, or switching full time staff to casual terms. Tourists are also staying away. According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, visitor arrivals in August fell by 40% year on year owing to the unrest. That’s terrible news for an economy already taking a hit from the Sino-U.S. trade war.

Still, the video reflects admirable resilience on the part of Hong Kong business owners. “For all the chaos, the city has shown a remarkable ability to carry on with its role as one of the world’s premier financial and commercial hubs,” noted a recent article in Bloomberg. The same article drew attention to another extraordinary sight on a recent Sunday at Hutchison House—a prestigious office tower, owned by famed billionaire Li Ka-shing, that is undergoing redevelopment. While protesters rampaged in the street below, construction workers could be made out on the top of the structure, working incessantly and building for tomorrow.

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