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Hong Kong hopes the Year of the Dragon brings good news for the economy

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's Lunar New Year in much of Asia today, and in Hong Kong, people are finally celebrating in full. For the first time in four years, fairs and festivals are being held with no restrictions. But despite the lively atmosphere, people are worried about what the year of the dragon will bring. Sherisse Pham reports.

SHERISSE PHAM, BYLINE: Hong Kong is ringing in the year of the dragon, and the city's largest Lunar New Year fair is in full swing.

CANDY CHANG: I think it's busier than what I expected because, like, I feel like everybody is saying the economy is not good in Hong Kong. But then I think, like, in this Chinese New Year market, like, people are willing to try new things.

PHAM: That's Candy Chang. She's selling cookies at the fair in Causeway Bay in central Hong Kong. Along with sweets and traditional snacks, there are also stalls selling flowers, decorations and, of course, toy dragons here. The year of the dragon is meant to bring wealth and good fortune for all, and Hong Kong could use some of that right now. After years of uncertainty and ongoing geopolitical tensions, business sentiment has soured in the city. Hong Kong was one of the first places in Asia to close its borders during the pandemic, and one of the last to reopen. And right before COVID, the city was rocked by massive pro-democracy protests that shut down large parts of the territory for months.

SYED ASIM HUSSAIN: The last four years, you know, you've been here as well. It's - they've been very, very challenging.

PHAM: That's Syed Asim Hussain. He founded Black Sheep Restaurants, a hospitality chain that operates more than 40 restaurants across the city.

HUSSAIN: Black Sheep is one of the industry leaders. And even our revenue, same store, is not where they were 2018. So there's work to do. There's work to do. And also, we've got to sort of rebuild this reputation Hong Kong has.

PHAM: Rebuilding Hong Kong's reputation remains a work in progress. The government has been running campaigns advertising that the city is open for business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's time for all of us to say...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Hello, Hong Kong.

PHAM: But a recent survey from the American Chamber of Commerce found that members are worried about U.S.-China relations and overseas perceptions of Hong Kong. Only 35% of AmCham respondents said they were optimistic about Hong Kong's business outlook for the year ahead. That's the lowest in three years.

ALICIA GARCIA-HERRERO: Well, AmCham, with 35 - yeah? - percent of respondents, only 35 being positive about Hong Kong very much reflects, in my view, the hard data that we have about Hong Kong, which shows a very slow recovery post-COVID.

PHAM: Alicia Garcia-Herrero is chief economist for Asia Pacific at Natixis, an investment bank. She says the economy is being hit by fewer visitors to Hong Kong and sluggish activity in the finance sector.

GARCIA-HERRERO: And we know that there has been very few IPOs, very little activity in the financial sector. That is, of course, not helping growth.

PHAM: That means fewer financial deals for people like Chris Williams. He runs an independent law firm in Hong Kong and has lived and worked here for more than 30 years.

CHRIS WILLIAMS: My view - and it is just my view - this is possibly the lowest level I can recall for economic activity, particularly in the financial business sector, which I'm in - legal practice, legal services. The flow of transactional business, particularly M&A transactions, capital markets work, is down significantly.

PHAM: But others are more optimistic. George Chen is a managing director with the Asia Group, a consulting firm. He spent the last 20 years in Hong Kong and says the city has bounced back from other crises before, like SARS, the Asian financial crisis and multiple protests.

GEORGE CHEN: To today's Hong Kong is probably not as good as what you expected previously, but it is also not as bad as what you read. I still have my faith, you know, in Hong Kong economy, partly, you know, maybe because I live here for so long, you know, people always say Hong Kong is probably one of the most resilient places in the whole world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PHAM: Back at the fair, people here are also hopeful that the year of the dragon will bring a bit more luck and prosperity to the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

PHAM: For NPR News, I'm Sherisse Pham in Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sherisse Pham