China travel ban bites as coronavirus fears leave Chinatown restaurants empty

Josh Dye
Table for one: Good Luck Hot Pot manager Jack Chen is pleading for people to keep supporting Chinese restaurants.
Table for one: Good Luck Hot Pot manager Jack Chen is pleading for people to keep supporting Chinese restaurants.  Photo: Louise Kennerley

Struggling restaurant owners in Sydney's Chinatown say they have lost as much as 85 per cent of their business due to the coronavirus outbreak blocking Chinese tourists and students from coming to Sydney. 

On Thursday the federal government extended the travel ban for all non-Australians travelling from China for at least another week as the death toll from the virus continues to surge. 

The effect of that travel ban is plain to see in Haymarket where foot traffic is well below the usual bustling level. The Sun Herald and Good Food visited multiple restaurants in Chinatown this week and each of them reported vast falls in patronage and revenue. 

China travel ban and coronavirus fears leave Chinatown empty

Jack Chen's restaurant, Good Luck Hot Pot has seen a massive drop in numbers since coronavirus was mentioned in the news.

An exasperated Jack Chen, manager of Good Luck Hot Pot on Dixon Street, says the virus has caused a "dramatic drop" of up to 80 per cent in his restaurant's revenue. 

"It's lasted for three weeks already. The impact is a lot, we do suffer a lot."  

Mr Chen pinpoints January 27, early in Lunar New Year celebrations, as the day everything changed. 

"Normally, it's just like Christmas. The time the Chinese community come out and have dinner with their family," he says.

"But from the third day of the festival, people were just gone. Nobody came out. We had a lot of cancellations - almost 80 per cent of reservations on the 27th and onwards."

Mr Chen appealed for people to overcome their fears and support the restaurant industry. 

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"There is no risk coming out to Chinatown to just walk or have dinner. I think I'm really safe here. I really want people to come out." 

The drop in visitors is three-fold. Two major factors are the drop in Chinese students and inbound tourists. Then there is the decrease in domestic diners, some of those being Chinese-Australian and others being non-Chinese residents. 

Gordon, who declined to give his surname, manages Xing Xing Sichuan Dish nearby. He says the wider impacts of the coronavirus outbreak are having a devastating impact on business. 

"It's really terrible. We're down up to 85 per cent. We don't have the students and we don't have the tourists." 

The restaurant has a turnover of up to $8000 on a good day but recently has been struggling to achieve $1500 in revenue. 

Wes Lambert is chief executive of the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association and he fears it's only a matter of time before Sydney restaurants begin to collapse. 

"We certainly expect some businesses may not survive the travel ban," Mr Lambert says.

"Our industry is already at historically low profit margins. It will be very difficult headwinds and trading conditions if it continues on. 

"It's a perfect storm. You look at the drought and bushfires that happened in the middle of the peak season. [Now] the coronavirus has effectively shut off Australia's number one tourism inbound market." 

Mr Lambert says 10 years ago the restaurant industry enjoyed profit margins of up to 15 per cent. 

"Now it's negative to a maximum of 8 per cent," he says.

While there is some community concern in the fall in patronage to Chinese restaurants is due to xenophobia, Mr Lambert doesn't believe that's true. 

"I think it's just fear in general - fear of the unknown. It's unfortunate that fear not backed by factual evidence has affected domestic dining." 

Billy Wong, the restaurateur son of Golden Century Seafood owners Eric and Linda Wong, was unable to identify how much financial loss his family business on Sussex Street had suffered, but says they are retaining staffing levels and opening hours for now. 

"Being a family business, it's difficult," Mr Wong says. 

"We're just thankful for the locals who are going out and supporting our business." 

This week one of Melbourne's most-loved restaurants, Chinatown's Shark Fin House, was forced to close after customer numbers collapsed over coronavirus fears.

The restaurant's co-owner Gabriel Chan says there was only a 5 per cent chance he would reopen the restaurant after customer numbers dropped by 80 per cent and more than 40 staff and 10 casuals had been laid off. 

Gladys Liu, Federal Parliament's first Chinese-born MP, on Friday urged people not to be afraid of going out. 

"My message is to encourage people to go about their normal lives. Don't be scared. There is nothing to panic about," she said.