Sunday, 17 Jan 2021

Turbulent times for Asia nightlife amid Covid-19 pandemic

SEOUL/BANGALORE/KUALA LUMPUR/HONG KONG/BEIJING – Once a core part of the thriving Itaewon nightlife in central Seoul with queues up to 1.5 hours, Mexican-Korean restaurant bar Vatos Urban Tacos has been whipped once and again by the coronavirus outbreak that has kept people away since February.

An Itaewon club cluster in May turned the area into a ghost town. All of the city’s 2,154 clubs were ordered to shut and only allowed to reopen with restrictions in late June.

Just as customers were starting to return in July, as infection numbers dropped to single digits, Vatos was hit with the latest blow – a 9pm dine-in restriction imposed last Sunday (Aug 30) to combat a sudden surge in cases.

South Korea reported 21,010 cases as of Saturday (Sept 5). About one quarter is from August alone.

“It seems like Covid-19 is a big bad bully who knocks you down and won’t let you get back up,” lamented Vatos co-founder Juweon Kim.

To minimise cost, he had to cut 60-70 per cent of his staff and shorten operating hours.

“A lot of restaurants closed but we forced ourselves to stay open, it’s like a form of marketing, saying Vatos is always open, at least on delivery,” Mr Kim told The Straits Times.

He added that delivery sales went up 20-30 per cent but it was not enough to make up for the 85-90 per cent drop in dine-in revenue, half of which is from the bar.

Mr Kim said the pandemic made them take a hard look at their business model and find new channels of revenue, such as making Vatos-branded home meal kits to sell online or at marts and convenience stores.

“Covid-19 is a game changer, the new norm,” he said.

But there are also “opportunities in turmoil”, he added, noting that they were able to secure a prime location in the glitzy Gangnam for their fourth branch.

Itaewon is not the only one hurt.

Nightlife hubs across Asia took a bashing as the pandemic spun out of control after first being detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan last December.

Globally there are over 26 million cases and more than 878,000 deaths. India is the worst hit in Asia and third most affected globally after the United States and Brazil, with 4.03 million cases and more than 69,000 deaths, according to data collection site Worldometer.


Bangalore, India’s pub city, saw nightlife die out since March, when the government imposed a nationwide lockdown.

Business crashed and many of the 1,330 bars had to close.

A few nimbly changed their ways of working to survive, staying open with fewer staff, negotiating lower rents, and changing menus. The city’s 57 microbreweries lobbied the local government to allow beer takeaways – once forbidden due to complex laws.

“With dining in and beer takeaways, we are able to stay afloat,” said Mr Sibi Venkataraju, the co-founder of Toit, Bangalore’s oldest microbrewery.

Once a vibrant pub with no standing room on a Saturday, Toit has had only a quarter of their usual customers in the past six months.

The Indian government has allowed bars to serve alcohol since Sept 1, but bar owners say that the older group which usually drinks more is still reluctant to come out.

“A younger than usual crowd is turning up. They get some food and a couple of mocktails and sit for 2-3 hours,” said Mr Venkataraju.

“The lockdown has made people really want to spend time with friends, I guess.”


The numbers are also sobering in Malaysia’s nightlife scene.

Nearly one in every five entertainment outlets have shut down and almost 50 per cent of workers lost their jobs after the government imposed a lockdown in March to curb the spread of the virus. Malaysia has reported 9,391 cases and 128 deaths.

Most sectors of the economy were reopened in June, but only clubs, pubs and bars that serve food alongside alcohol were allowed to resume operations until midnight. About half of the 6,600 nightspots nationwide serve alcohol only.

Mr Cher Ng, executive director of TREC, which houses clubs such as Zouk KL and Iron Fairies, said they are focused on serving food and alcohol to weather the Covid-19 storm.

“We can’t do DJs or live bands, nor can we play music too loud either because we are operating under the pretext of a restaurant bar,” he said. “This has caused our revenue to plummet around 75 per cent.”

As a landlord, TREC is also helping tenants by offering rental rebates and free parking. “We are also helping some tenants with the licence applications to convert their current spaces into a restaurant bar or cafe,” said Mr Ng.


In Hong Kong, food and beverage players have adapted quickly to roll with the punches.

When the government ordered bars and pubs to close again in mid-July as the third wave hit, rock-and-roll bar co-owner Beckaly Franks and her team quickly brought in a coffee machine and came up with ideas for snacks in order to transform The Pontiac, a 700 square foot popular watering hole in Central, into a cafe – in less than 48 hours.

Dine-in services at eateries were at the time allowed only between 5am and 6pm.

“So we closed the doors (as a pub) and opened up at 11am and you know, threw that daytime cafe vibe party until 6pm,” she said.

Dine-in hours have been extended to 10pm from Sept 4 – as the third wave of the pandemic tapers off.

Bars, pubs and nightclubs were first forced to close in late March through April during the second wave of the pandemic. Pent-up demand soared when they reopened in early May, throwing these establishments a much-needed lifeline.

Hong Kong has so far recorded more than 4,800 confirmed cases, including over 90 deaths.


In Beijing, the nightlife industry is slowly coming back to life after being hit by a combination of the pandemic and the closure of a popular clubbing area.

Sanlitun, a popular nightlife destination, was hit especially hard. After being allowed to re-open in May, it was forced to shut again during the second wave.

While there have been no hard numbers, industry players said an estimated 30 to 50 per cent of bars have shut because of the pandemic.

Gastrobar owner Joe Hou, whose clientele were mostly expatriates, had to try to attract new local customers by expanding the menu to include items like rice dishes.

“We’ve had to cut our floor staff so now I work at the bar while my wife is the server, if not there was simply no way we could survive,” he said.

China has reported 90,507 cases of coronavirus and 4,735 deaths.

With the situation gradually easing – Beijing has not seen any new cases in nearly a month – partygoers are starting to reappear.

In club One Third, the only indication of an ongoing pandemic were the masks hanging off the elbows of patrons dancing the night away.

“It’s been nearly nine months since my friends and I have had a night out like that because we were all worried before,” said Ms Shelly Feng, a 25-year-old who works in finance.

“Now that everything is starting to look better, we’re making up for lost time,” she said with a laugh.

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