'Covid is like a bully who won't let us get back up'

Just as cities were opening up again, new outbreaks have led to restrictions that have dealt a fresh blow to Asia's nightlife scene. Foreign correspondents Chang May Choon, Claire Huang, Elizabeth Law, Nadirah H. Rodzi and Rohini Mohan report from Seoul, Hong Kong, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and Bangalore.



Mr Juweon Kim, co-founder of Mexican-Korean restaurant bar Vatos Urban Tacos, says delivery sales are up, but they are nowhere enough to make up for the big drop in dine-in revenue. ST PHOTO: CHANG MAY CHOON

Once a core part of the thriving Itaewon nightlife in central Seoul, with queue times of up to 11/2 hours, Mexican-Korean restaurant bar Vatos Urban Tacos has been whipped once and again by the coronavirus outbreak, which 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 shut and only allowed to reopen with restrictions in late June.

Just as customers were starting to return in July, as local infection numbers dropped to single digits, Vatos took another blow - a 9pm dine-in restriction imposed last Sunday to combat a sudden surge in cases.

South Korea reported 21,010 total cases as of yesterday. About one quarter is from last month alone.

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

To minimise cost, he had to cut 60 per cent to 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 for delivery," Mr Kim said. He added that delivery sales went up 20 per cent to 30 per cent but it was not enough to make up for the 85 per cent to 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 the company was able to secure a prime location in the glitzy Gangnam area for its 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 were reported.

India is the worst-hit in Asia and third most affected globally after the United States and Brazil.

India reported four million cases and over 69,000 deaths, according to data collection site Worldometer.


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Bangalore is known as India's pub city, but since the lockdown in March that brought a ban on serving alcohol, many bars have had to find more creative solutions to stay afloat.

Bangalore, India's pub city, has seen nightlife die out since March, when the government imposed a nationwide lockdown.

Business crashed and many of the city's 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, co-founder of Toit, Bangalore's oldest microbrewery.

India's pub city has seen nightlife die out since March, when the government imposed a nationwide lockdown. Business crashed and many of the city's 1,330 bars had to close. ST PHOTO: ROHINI MOHAN

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

The Indian government has allowed bars to serve alcohol since last Tuesday, but bar owners say the older group that 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 two to three 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 has 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 in total.

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

Mr Cher Ng, executive director of TREC, which houses clubs like Zouk KL and Iron Fairies, said his firm is 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 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 its tenants by offering rental rebates and free parking.

"We are also helping some tenants with licence applications to convert their current spaces into a restaurant bar or cafe," said Mr Ng.


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In Hong Kong, as the pandemic tapers and social distancing measures are relaxed further, food and beverage players, already suffering from last year's unrest, are now struggling to stay afloat. But the adversity is also spurring ideas.

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 sq ft popular watering hole in Central, into a cafe - in less than 48 hours.

When the government ordered bars and pubs to close in mid-July, Ms Beckaly Franks, co-owner of The Pontiac bar, transformed the popular watering hole in Central into a cafe - in less than 48 hours. PHOTO: THE PONTIAC

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 threw that daytime cafe vibe party until 6pm," she said.

Dine-in hours have been extended to 10pm from Friday - as the third wave 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.


Patrons dancing at One Third, a popular club in the city's Sanlitun area last Wednesday. With the virus situation gradually easing in the Chinese capital, partygoers are starting to reappear. ST PHOTO: ELIZABETH LAW

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 reopen 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 per cent to 50 per cent of bars have shut because of the pandemic.

Gastrobar owner Joe Hou, whose clientele was mostly expatriates, had to try to attract new local customers by expanding the menu to include items such as 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 and 4,735 deaths in total.

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 was 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.



• Patrons must have temperatures taken and register details on the Beijing health kit app.

• Establishments must provide hand sanitisers.

• Nightspots and bars need to be disinfected daily; staff should wear disposable masks.


• For a week from last Friday, dining-in services at eateries extended for another hour to 10pm.

• Eateries to continue to run at half seating capacity, with up to two patrons at a table and each table 1.5m apart.

• Premises that sell only or mainly alcohol, such as bars and pubs, must remain shut.


• Bars allowed to serve alcohol since Sept 1; microbreweries can sell takeaway beer.

• Masks, temperature checks and social distancing seating for patrons.

• Masks and gloves mandatory for all staff.


• Pubs, bars and nightclubs remain closed.

• Only restaurant bars (restaurants with liquor licence) allowed to stay open till midnight.

• All outlets must observe social distancing and register details of customers or scan their details using the MySejahtera app.


• High-risk facilities, including clubs and karaoke rooms, all closed.

• All restaurants to stop dine-in services from 9pm. Only takeaway and delivery services allowed from 9pm to 5am.

• All chain cafes and bakeries to offer takeaway and delivery only.


• Bars and clubs allowed to reopen from July 1; they have to close by midnight every day.

• Tables to be spaced 2m apart, and groups not allowed to share tables.

• Customers have to log their entry and exit on the Thai Chana online platform.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2020, with the headline 'Covid is like a bully who won't let us get back up'. Subscribe