Stop killing Hong Kong’s wonton noodle restaurants!

Stop killing Hong Kong’s wonton noodle restaurants!

As high end brands prosper, local eateries are being cast away

Billboards and banners might make you think all Hong Kongers are obsessed with watches. Not so.

I recently walked into a cosmetics store in Hong Kong and asked for eyeliner. In Cantonese.

The saleswoman closed her smile, gave me an impatient stare and pointed: "That way."

She quickly moved on to the next customer, clearly hoping not to be forced into conversing in the local tongue.

I turned away, shamed at not being a high-rolling tourist in my own city.

It wasn't that I was worried about finding what I wanted -- there are three more cosmetic stores selling the same products on the same street.

We Hong Kongers also have no shortage of jewelry stores, shops selling monogrammed purses and pharmacies stocking milk powder. These businesses have been thriving thanks to a heavy influx of tourists in recent years.

But as Hong Kong celebrates its “tourism success,” its residents are at the same time mourning the loss of their local culture and beloved restaurants.

Is it possible to enjoy the benefits of the former without suffering the drawbacks of the latter?

Shopping paradise or bland mall?

Last year, Hong Kong saw another record-breaking amount of tourist arrivals in the city -- 48.6 million, a 16% growth over 2011.

But look closely at the official report you'll find that apart from mainland Chinese tourists -- whose numbers grew 24% -- visitors from the rest of the world declined.

Despite its global reputation for commerce, today's Hong Kong is hardly a shopper's paradise -- it's become an oversized, bland shopping mall for Chinese tourists.

More on CNN: Chinese tourism: The good, the bad and the backlash

Property owners push unique local businesses away with excessive rents to make room for luxury brand outlets, further graying Hong Kong’s dulling cityscape.

In 2012, the centrally located shopping district of Causeway Bay surpassed New York’s Fifth Avenue as the most expensive retail district in the world.

According to a report by Cushman & Wakefield, commercial rents in Causeway Bay averaged $2,630 per month in 2012, a 34.9% increase over 2011. Together with Tsim Sha Tsui and Central, Causeway Bay topped the priciest-district chart in Asia. (See how you can still shop like a local in Causeway Bay here.)

"The highlight of Asia this year was Hong Kong where we saw prime rents surge by 21.8% as a result of a strong demand from a diverse group of new international retailers and the scarcity of available space," said Cushman & Wakefield retail transaction services senior director Michele Woo. 

Woo also noted that retailers continue to see Hong Kong as an ideal launch platform for business in mainland China.

But what's been good for certain retailers has been detrimental to Hong Kong as a whole.

More on CNN: 5 great local Hong Kong shops

Insane property market

Lei Yuen Congee and NoodlesSentimental locals took pictures in front of Lei Yuen Congee and Noodles in Causeway Bay before the beloved shop closed down earlier this year.Despite having large and loyal followings, traditional eateries that charge around HK$50 ($6.50) for a meal can no longer afford their skyrocketing rents.

In Tsim Sha Tsui, The Sweet Dynasty was the last holdout restaurant left on Canton Road, a street now lined with luxury shops. It was forced to relocate last December due to a whopping rent increase.

Originally renting at HK$800,000 ($103,000) per month, its two-story space (with an extra floor) is now leased to the Apple Store for HK$11 million ($1.4 million) per month.

Yes, HK$11,000,000. I counted the zeroes twice.

Dubbed the world’s cheapest Michelin-star restaurant, the original Tim Ho Wan dim sum restaurant in Mong Kok relocated in January after its rent was raised almost two-fold.

Owner Mak Kwai-pui told CNN that property owners raise rents regardless of the shop's popularity.

More on CNN: Michelin star wars: Recognition not the tastiest dish

On Sharp East Street in Causeway Bay, noodle eatery Ho Hung Kee moved just this month to a nearby shopping mall, and raisied the price on a bowl of its famed noodles from HK$35 to HK$55.80.

Also in Causeway Bay, 60-year-old Lei Yuen Congee and Noodles closed in January 2013 after the landlord offered a “milder” rent raise (compared to its neighbors) from HK$300,000 a month to a mere HK$600,000.

Vanishing culture

The diversity and variety that Hong Kongers pride themselves on is sacrificed when landlords seek immediate returns.

Even worse, many of the shops –- with the old businesses hustled off –- are left unoccupied due to unreasonably high rents.

Think Hong Kong’s “tourism industry” can be fed on selling high-end brands and milk powder forever? Think again.

With the scene in our central business districts continuing to zoom in the direction of luxury sought by mainlanders, I can still ride a dozen stations down the bus lines to look for a bowl of HK$28 wonton noodles, something Hong Kongers can’t live without.

But I wonder in a few years how many tourists will be able to experience this special part of Hong Kong culture, or if it'll be pushed so far to the fringes of the city that they won't even be aware it exists?

More on CNN: 40 Hong Kong foods we can’t live without

Hiufu Wong is CNN Travel's staff writer.

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