My approach towards COVID-19 is just to make yourself business as usual, since it is a way for me to stay calm.
– HOWARD LING
Interview and Illustration by Tara Tang
On a bright and balmy Monday afternoon, I had an enlightening conversation with Howard Ling about coronavirus and its effect on the restaurant industry in Hong Kong. After leaving his role at LVMH in 2004, Howard returned to Hong Kong with new aspirations in mind. Howard’s expertise as a food scientist and entrepreneurial spirit led him to take on a more diverse social enterprise projects aimed at community building. Under the many projects that he has incubated, Bijas is surely a restaurant that most people who frequent the Hong Kong University campus would be familiar with. As one of the co-founders of the restaurant, Howard shared his perspectives on Bijas’ journey from the start up to its current state tackling coronavirus. Everyone in Hong Kong has their own memories of SARS and now COVID-19, and this is Howard Lings’s:
T: As someone who has visited Hong Kong University numerous times, I always find that Bijas is a breath of fresh air amongst the uninspiring eateries around the campus. How did you get inspired to co-found Bijas?
H: Bijas was inspired by the lack of vegetarian options in any of the universities. I was surprised to find out that there are no pure vegetarian options! Of course in every restaurant there are vegetarian options on the menu, but there was no pure vegetarian restaurant for the customers. So I said, “why not one?”. This was 6 years ago, then HKU, actually not just HKU but every university 6 years ago, changed their bachelors system from 3 years to 4 years. If you can recall back then, Form 5, 6 and 7 students all were trying to get into the same universities. All of the major universities in Hong Kong did not have enough space, so all the universities had to expand their campuses. And in HKU, their new extension was called Centennial campus. And they had 4 retail outlets, and one of the outlets in the tendering document was ‘Healthy Food’. But their original idea of healthy food was like sushi or not fried or not oily. So their idea was more about cooking style and I was thinking more about choices of food. I submitted my tender and presented a 100% vegetarian restaurant to the committee. And the catering committee was somehow shocked by this proposal – since they were expecting a cooking style. The judging process was like 50/50, since there was so many competitors. There were big Michelin chefs like Alvin Leung to companies like Café de Coral. But at the end, we won the bid. We won the bid for three reasons: Firstly, we bundled our bid with a rooftop garden. There used to be one in HKU, but failed because of a water leakage. The second reason was because of our zero waste recycling, we could decompose the vegetarian residue to reduce waste. The third reason was because of our focus towards employment for the disabled. We successfully got the tender and I guess the rest is history!
T: I also wanted to add that I have friends that went to school at HKU. It’s comforting to hear mentions of Bijas from them, since a lot of students attending school there don’t want to go all the way down to Sai Ying Pun to get food.
H: We like Bijas a lot because the customers also love us! Thomas, my partner and Bijas’ manager is there all the time, so he has developed a very strong relationship with the other customers. This is also why I keep him at Bijas, instead of the other newer restaurants we started in HKUST. From a business point of view, when we expand we usually relocate the senior staff to newer branches to maintain the business. For this particular business, I wanted him to stay. I asked someone else to help out with the new locations, firstly training him in Bijas for a few months and then to the newer location. I see the business as a relationship, not as a way to make profit. If you were trying to profit from this business, you would try to clone and replicate the original store as many times as possible. I hope this is one of the reasons why people like to come to Bijas, not just for the food but also Thomas and all the other colleagues that work at Bijas!
T: How do you choose who is on your team? Is there particular attributes in a person you look out for?
H: I think there is two factors. I stand by my social enterprise values, so I believe in a fair salary for each and every one of my employees. I won’t reduce the salary of certain employees or give managers a higher raise. No matter if you are an assistant manager or cashier, you will enjoy the same salary. No matter what your abilities or disabilities are. This is the first thing that I think about since some managers are not used to this system. They will come up to me and say, “I speak more! I do more! But I still earn the same amount as any other staff!”. So my second requirement is patience. It is a learning process for you and me, I cannot precisely predict if new staff will get along. If you suffer, I suffer. If you enjoy, I enjoy. It’s all about better understanding. If you fulfil these two requirements, we will be on the same page. But for professionals, they sometimes cannot wrap their heads around it. But I think it’s fine, because time will tell. After a year, they will get fed up and ask to leave the company. And I say, “You are free to leave.”. For exit interviews, I always say the same thing, “You should feel grateful and blessed because you had a choice to departure from this company. Look at all of your co-workers, would they be able to do something like this? No. They will think twice because it is hard to find an equal opportunities employer in other restaurants. So all I can really do is wish them good luck for their journey onwards. Usually when I say these kinds of things to them, maybe after a year, they come back to Bijas. Staff always end up returning, because they realise that the restaurant culture outside is greatly different. I can never blame staff for wanting to leave, I give them all my blessings, or even offer up produce suppliers to help their endeavours! This is how Bijas creates a nurturing work culture.
T: Now that we have gotten to know your story and how Bijas came along, I would like to know about your experiences in the past. I want to bring it back to 2003, what was your memory of SARS?
H: My memory at that time was not very strong because when the outbreak first started I was in Switzerland. And when I was in Switzerland, my parents kept sending me emails. And back then, there was no WhatsApp – phones were just phones! I’m getting all these emails, and of course also watching CNN news broadcasts. So my memory is just that the whole city came to a halt. I came back a year later after the SARS outbreak, and I remember the economy was down. And I decided that I no longer wanted to work at LVMH and started my own business. It seemed so fast…just one year. I remember talking to my parents and they talked about staying indoors. They did not talk about masks all the time – just mentioning that SARS was contagious and about how dangerous it was to go outside. Especially when we have no idea about how well everything was sanitised, like keypads and elevator doors. My mother asked me if this was happening in Switzerland, and I said that there was nothing happening at all. At the time it was not global, SARS was more of an asian thing. That was my memory, not too long not too short.
T: How has it changed this time round in 2020 now that you have come back in Hong Kong? Especially since you have helped develop so many social enterprises in the city.
H: I could not have imagined all the things that happened this year. I even started a mask production line! To me, I would say I have saved a lot of time travelling, because I usually have four to five meetings a day. So now those meetings, I can do at home using Zoom. I consider it a highly efficient tool for me because I do not have to travel back and forth. Secondly, the ideas and projects I have incubated with partners, I do not feel like a lot has changed. It is still business as usual, but with more caution. When we have a real life meeting, we wear a mask. That’s the only big difference that I can see. My approach towards COVID-19 is just to make yourself business as usual, since it is the way for me to stay calm. Business as usual does not mean that you do not wear protective gear. Of course you will wear protective gear – if you protect yourself, you protect others. I remember I saw an informational video on how to wear a mask, and it basically was about protecting others rather than yourself. When you see mask wearing as a personal responsibility rather than personal protection. This is the very first idea that I got when we started wearing masks, and how I taught my whole family. At the beginning, they thought that wearing masks was about protecting yourself but I had to tell them that wearing masks was about protecting others. If you are protecting yourself, you can choose when to take off the mask. If you are feeling hot under your mask, you can choose to not wear it. But if you are protecting others you have no choice but to keep it on.
T: Personally, have you been doing anything differently?
H: Since I saved time travelling to and from meetings, I have more time to exercise. My children are at home, so I usually will just invite them to the basketball court a few blocks away from our flat. We played basketball at the court until it closed four weeks ago. They took the basketball rim out of the board, but we still found a way to play. If you look at the backboard with the small square, I told my son, “If you aim at the small square, I will still consider that as a goal!”. So there is always a way. I think it is an interesting way to cope with COVID-19 with sports to keep your body running. During these times, I have been eating more at home and exercising more – to me I have had the opportunity for some quality family time. My wife and children have enjoyed it. Since my wife likes cooking at home, because she does not want to go out. She did not find cooking as a burden but rather a safer way to eat. And of course, we as a family praise her for her hard work and delicious meals. That way everyone feels happy.
T: As a part of the changes COVID-19 has brought, industries have become increasingly digitised. Has this changed your business tactics, and how has it affected Bijas?
H: I think for the restaurant business, we view the income and expenses more vigorously just to ensure the cash in and out are accounted for. Part-time staff may not come as often as before. I think a major change was the rescheduling of working staff. Other than that everything has remained mostly the same. My other businesses like my mask production business has managed the same way as it did before.
T: Do you think the restaurant industry will change after this, since there are so many new policies and precautions put in place?
H: I think it is a change that will last another ten to twelve months for hygiene measures. No matter how many people they will allow on a table, this will still go on for a while. From an operational point of view, every restaurant has its own way of handling this. Once the ban is lifted, everything will go back to normal because there is no way restaurants cannot keep afloat with half of the potential seatings. I guess the plastic shield will still be there, and people will still wear masks when they are not eating.
T: Personally, I would not mind if they had the plastic shields in restaurants forever. But do you think that if restaurants kept these shields it would remind people of coronavirus times or it would be normalised?
H: I think the restaurant industry is one that changes with the customer’s preferences very quickly. So if the plastic separators invites more customers to eat with confidence at the restaurant, they will keep it. But if they find the separators as an annoyance they will remove it. Because they do not want to irritate the customer base. If your customers come in and do not complain about the separator, then you should be fine. I think restaurants react based on customer’s reactions. But I think this is a good measure, I cannot imagine people complaining about separators. Maybe if the separators were dirty but not about its usefulness.
T: Perhaps it is more cultural, since plastic separators are less common in banquet hall-type restaurants. But the way the rounded tables are set up, everyone sits so far apart from each other anyways. And also the clientele of those types of restaurants are from an older generation, so they may have their own dining preferences as well.
H: Yes, I agree. It depends on the set up of the table, not every restaurant can do it easily. Western and Asian style restaurants are more popular, whereas the banquet style tables are more difficult.
T: How has you and your personal circle been coping with COVID-19? You mentioned that you have children, it must be difficult for them since they cannot go to school and see their friends. How has it affected your kids?
H: I have seen more and more self discipline. Even at work, some colleagues are less disciplined. You can usually tell if people are focused on work or not. If you ask them to submit something, and it takes them longer to do something. Children are the same – whether they catch up with their homework or focus on a Zoom lecture. I’m glad that my children are doing relatively okay. My daughter is still in primary school completing Y3, she is still getting used to all of this. Right after her zoom lectures, she will start to play around with her toys and not do her homework until the very last moment. Usually, she has to wake up very early to do her homework before she has to hand it in. My son is a bit better, because he is doing his first year at secondary school. I can see that primary and secondary school have two different teaching methods. Secondary schools are more rigid about their learning schedules whereas primary schools are more about keeping you busy with less intervention.
I find it funny as a parent when you stay home, you have the time to assess the quality of the teaching. For many teachers, I think they will feel quite stressed. Usually, you will never see how they teach. But now the way they teach and yell, I’m sure they have gotten some complaints from the teachers. I have attended some lectures, just by accident because I was at home and I overheard what my children’s teachers said. I sometimes find it not very professional, for example in primary school, there was a teacher who’s microphone feedback was echoing throughout the lecture. The students kept covering their ears, and the teacher kept scolding the students with, “Why are you doing this?”. And the children are too scared to respond back. I think sometimes there is a better way to teach topics like history. That is something the teachers never expected. Comparing the two sets of teachers, I find primary school teachers can be more rude and direct. Some teachers feel more inclined to treat their students like animals, telling them to do this and that. I think this reflects the certain flaws of the Hong Kong education system.
T: How can the people of Hong Kong learn from this as a community?
H: Hong Kong went from a very difficult time of social unrest to COVID-19. I still remember helping out with the online Sam Hui concert. During the planning, we were wondering whether we should go on with the concert or to postpone it for later. We had hundreds of reasons to not do it – if you think about the pandemic on top of the political situation. But at the end of the day you only have one reason – it feels right to do. People have stayed home for too long, so lets host a Sam Hui concert to cheer people up! It was quite special because Harbour City did not even ask for any rent charge, TVB did not ask broadcasting rights, Sam Hui did not ask for a performance fee. Everyone came to share the same values in order to make the concert a reality. No party was demanding for the rights or all the money. Everyone was already suffering, so it sounds ridiculous Sam Hui were to demand 20 thousand for one song. That created a ripple effect to do the concert on Mother’s day. This incident reminded me of one thing – when you want to do something outside of your own personal agenda but for the common good, just do it!
T: The last question I would like to ask is on the political nature of the face mask. I guess maybe in Asia it is more common, if you are sick, you wear a face mask so you do not infect friends or coworkers. What is your perspective on face masks?
H: I think it is a cultural thing. If you look at Chinese culture when you greet each other, sometimes you can choose to put your hands together like a prayer as a greeting. But in the West, it is common to kiss on the cheek. This is part of their culture. This form of greeting shows respect and friendship. So when you tell them no kissing or no handshaking – they do not have an alternative. You cannot change their cultural habits overnight. I feel like it is hard for them, not because they want to violate any rules or not even discriminate you for wearing a mask. When you wear a mask, it is a gesture to show that you do not want to kiss or engage in a handshake – which is why they feel offended. Even without the mask if you meet a foreigner, if they have a culture of kissing, you personally find it okay. But if you wear the mask they can visually detect that there is something wrong whether its with you or themselves. They see this as something so obvious that you cannot hid, and because of the news reporting the usefulness of mask wearing. At the beginning, I just felt bad for them because this was not a part of their culture. To us, this is part of our culture. I approach this problem as a way of understanding. There is a famous quote, ” you seek first to understand then to be understood”. You have to seek first to understand why this is happening, then you will be understood. But if you do not do the seeking first and you expect them to understand you at the beginning, it will be very difficult. I see the whole community reaction should go out to understand them first, then you will not even feel offended if they do not like you wearing masks because it is more like saying no to your culture. But I hope you also understand my culture of mask wearing, it does not mean that I do not respect you. I am already outside to meet you, that is my gesture of showing that nothing is wrong but do not expect me to do the same because we are from two different cultures. If you are using fork and knife, I am using chopsticks. If you are offended when I bring you to a Chinese restaurant and you do not know how to use chopsticks, I will simply just ask the waiter for a fork and knife. It is the restaurants responsibility to give you options, and not your responsibility based on your abilities. So this is what I think, it is about coming to an understanding about different cultures.