Doors of town's main stationery shop closed: owner Agnes explains why

Interview by Buzz editor-at-large Mei Yuen

Jason Yeung and Agnes Lam

Interview held on January 18, 2017, just before the shop closed.

Q:  How long have you been running this shop?

 Agnes:  At this location … 21 years.

Q:  Where were you before?

 Agnes:  We were at Yi Chun Street, diagonally across from the Standard Chartered Bank close by Shun Kee City Houseware… We started there in 1979 …

Q:  Why did you move from there to here?

Agnes:  We operated there from 1979 till 1991 … Then my daughters and I went to New Zealand …  my husband remained here and continued working on the wholesale side of the business … and my employees and my sister-in-law looked after the shop in retail  …  Then a fire broke out … and they decided after that to try something new – sushi … they did sushi in that shop space  for a few years … and eventually stopped as there were too many regulations in that business …  It was then 1995 and my daughters and I had come back to HK from NZ …  and from 1995  till now …  my husband and I operated the shop here … with my husband on the wholesale side of the business and me on the retail side …

Q :  Why did you choose to open a shop in SK ?

Agnes:  We liked to come to Sai Kung often to fish … Over time we got to know an elderly man in Yi Chun Street … He said he did not want to continue his business and wanted to return to the UK … He wanted us to take over … We said we didn’t know how to run a business but he told us we could try … His shop was like a department store with a large inventory … We trimmed that down gradually … When we first took over the business we were not working full time on it … I was teaching and my husband was  a salesman in a large company … I could only man the shop in the afternoon and I asked a friend to look after the shop in the morning … After a while my friend was not able to help me anymore so I quit my teaching job … … … I worked there until 1991 when my daughters and I went to NZ  My daughters were about 7-8 years at that time …

Q:  Are you happy working here?

Agnes:  Quite happy … I have very good customers … like you … we can chat … When I see a familiar face coming in the shop it gives me a warm feeling  … We have thought of changing the nature of our business over the years but we couldn’t think of what to do … because every time something came in the way …

Q:  Why did you think of changing the nature of your business?

Agnes:  Every time we thought of trying something came in the way … In 1983 we were dealing in Japanese made goods … All of a sudden the value of the yen rose so much …  It made things impossible for us …   Then the Asian financial crisis came  and everything collapsed …

Q:  When did you start thinking of closing down your business?

Agnes:  About 2-3 years ago because we are getting old … over 60 now … Continuously working and not being able to rest is very hard … The government is saying standard working hours are  43-44 hours (per week) … I thought to myself we work more than 88 hours … I thought we better give ourselves some time to travel a bit  before we are physically not able to do that anymore … otherwise it would make life quite meaningless.

Q:  You thought about closing down your business 2-3 years ago, why are you so determined to do that now?

Agnes:  Because of the steep economic downturn  … Our business income has dropped 30% … Every year our income dropped … we are operating on the edge … there is no room for development … The turnover and profit are not sufficient to sustain the rent and salaries …

Q:  I heard this morning that Starbucks is closing. (We have no confirmation of this –ED.)

Agnes:  Really?

Q:  I only heard it this morning … I have not gone to ask the owner to confirm this …

Agnes:  I think they are paying  $100,000 +

Q:  I heard that the rental is being raised to 200,000+ … and they cannot sustain it … This needs to be confirmed  …

Agnes:  Patsy House says their rent is also being increased, making it very difficult for them … I also heard that May’s Sawaddee Thailand’s  rental increase is so high that May says she will not be able to cope …  She said she’d not be able to serve up enough extra dishes to cover the rental increase … There is no way she could add $10 to each dish … Customers would not pay that …

Q:  For you personally, the main reason for leaving is because you want to take some rest,or because the rental increase/business downturn would make it not worthwhile to continue the business … or it’s a combination of the two?

Agnes:  Even if my landlord does not increase my rental charge … and I can maintain my business income as it is now for the next two years … I’d still find it quite tight … so I might as well close the business … But I really like the people here in SK  … That’s why we have delayed our move for a few more years …

Q:  You are closing your shop right after CNY?

Agnes:  Middle of February.

Q:  What are your plans after that?

Agnes:  I think most likely a family reunion … going back to NZ to join my daughters.

Q:  Are you emigrating then?

Agnes:  I have already emigrated there before … so I am just going back.

Q:  Are you going back for good and not coming back here anymore?

Agnes:  I would come back … because my mother is here … She is quite elderly now, over 80 years old

Q:  Your husband will go to NZ with you this time?

Agnes:  Yes, I told him not to live on his own any more … There is no need to continue (working) … I feel we both are very tired now …

Q:  Beside reuniting with your daughters when you go back to NZ, as you are still young and energetic, what will you do?  Travelling and  enjoying yourself a bit?

Agnes:  Cannot play around for too long … I am thinking I might learn how to do on-line business … I have heard of some retired people doing that … You don’t need to physically do anything …  Say if I join the Amazon platform … I can buy some products and list them  there and Amazon  will take care of selling/shipping the products and I just need to pay them handling fees  …

Q:  Are you happy, embarking on a new career ?

Agnes:  I am happy …  just going to give it a try … just giving it a try … I really want to learn western painting … now that I’ll have the time.

Q:  Last question … how do you see SK?  Just walking around I see shops closing and new ones opening … How do you see SK’s future?

Agnes:  What people say is correct … When one shop closes another one opens in its place … When you see just Saturdays and Sundays  you might think everywhere is full of people … very prosperous here … but in reality from Monday to Friday it’s really very quiet  … I feel it’s quite difficult to run a business in Sai Kung …

Q:  Is it basically due to the high rental charge?

Agnes:  Because the population threshold is not sufficient …

Q:  So business people need to think seriously before deciding whether to open a shop in SK?

Agnes:  Yes, that is true  … 2-3 years ago when the international school Hong Kong Academy opens here people said we would do very well  … But there was no benefit … Because as soon as school finished everyday the students were transported away.

Q: So you rely on sales to students of the other schools here in SK town?

Agnes:  Now we don’t even sell five school bags in a year … Nowadays schools seem to provide a complete package to the students … So we only get to supply those few who either miss out or need extra supplies …  So it’s really sunset for our business.

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  1. running most any B & M business today is tough just about anywhere with landlords and Amazones, maybe things will be better when AI takes over the government