Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm in Hong Kong, the chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch

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The Independent Online

There is a strange calm sitting over Pacific Place. Queen's Road below has been closed and is almost deserted. We have decided to close The Continental tonight – the restaurant is not actually open anyway but "trialling" – since the infrastructure has been brought to its knees. With a national holiday coming up, business is quiet anyway. The garage below the shopping mall, normally full of Porsches, Mercedes and 4x4s is almost deserted. Burberry and Versace are even more empty than usual. There is an air of faint annoyance at this interruption to the business of Hong Kong which is the earnest pursuit of an honest buck.

Up until now, the Occupy Central Movement had the good taste to turn out only on weekends, thus allowing that pursuit to continue relatively unhindered. This is a little different and the world has woken up to this outpouring of public feeling in favour of the idea of Western democracy. I always found it somewhat ironic that the last Governor, on handover, sought to ensure democracy for its residents, despite that they never had it before and that he was negotiating with an empty deck.

Having been advised to turn left at Admiralty station to avoid the demonstrations, I naturally turned right, spurred on not least by a contrary nature. The passages of the Underground heading towards Government Square were indeed congested, partly with a large number of volunteers in yellow T-shirts with megaphones and walkie-talkies. They were directing hordes of mostly young people who were armed with goggles, masks and boxes of food, marching joyfully towards the sound of the drums.

The drums were muted when I emerged into the street beside the square. After the hubbub of the Tube, there was a peaceful atmosphere at 5.30pm. There were an awful lot of people, 40,000 according to reports, but they made less noise than the home QPR crowd on a wet afternoon when 3-0 down to Burnley. They weren't all young. There were some middle-aged characters who looked as though they might be teachers or might fill the cheaper seats for the Zurich Symphony Orchestra's performance at the Hong Kong University concert hall. As for the younger crowd, you could not hope to see a nicer lot. You would be very pleased if your cynical, lethargic and world-weary children had the same air of fresh-faced idealism and perhaps naïve belief in the virtues of democracy.

They are also a little bit brave. The authorities have not yet demonstrated much ability to contain what is a remarkably peaceable crowd. There is no suggestion of an insurgent infiltration and yet the police think it's a smart idea to dole out a fat dose of tear gas, thus strengthening the resolve of this protest movement. I received a lung full of tear gas in Turkey last year. I was attending a gastronomic fair in a park near a football stadium, and the crowd was getting a little enthusiastic because it was a derby match on the last day of the season. It was not nice. You weep, you retch, your throat burns and your sinuses ache for a day afterwards. Thinking of those kids facing this treatment, I am reminded of the famous newspaper editorial, with the headline borrowed from Alexander Pope: "Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?", albeit in a rather different context.

Larry, the young restaurant manager in my hotel, is not a sympathiser. He knows the mainland government wants Hong Kong to remain a conduit for money between China and the West. One might argue that that is the wish of most of the former colony's residents, so what is Beijing worried about? There is no health service here, welfare depends on the family not the state and Hong Kong continues to pursue the same aggressive capitalist path as the rest of China.

So we have cancelled tonight's service. One or two members of staff are joyful, not because they can join the crowds in the Square 200 yards away but because they can have the night off. Most are disappointed. They are paid to work and they want to work. They have no interest, I fear, in the pursuit of democracy. I am tempted to hang around the square but my idling takes a more sybaritic form and I am invited for dinner on the Peak.

Rowley Leigh is consultant chef at Le Café Anglais. This article first appeared yesterday in 'The Idler' at idler.co.uk

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