KUALA LUMPUR: Traders in Kuala Lumpur and beyond who were anticipating a busy season in the lead up to Chinese New Year are now bracing themselves for potential losses, after the government again enforced a Movement Control Order (MCO) in almost all states to tackle a soaring number of COVID-19 cases.
When CNA visited the thoroughfare of Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown last week, it was uncharacteristically quiet, with only a few shops open. They declined to be interviewed.
Normally, the area would be packed with pedestrians and closed off to vehicular traffic. In the weeks before Chinese New Year, shoppers would usually throng the area to purchase festive goods.
Petaling Street has been shut down before, in Malaysia’s first MCO imposed in mid-March last year to stem the spread of COVID-19.
However, this second MCO imposed since Jan 13 is a bolt from the blue as the run-up to Chinese New Year is normally one of the busiest, and most profitable seasons for Petaling Street traders.
Fung Wong confectionery shop along Jalan Hang Lekir, off the main Petaling Street was among the few businesses that were operating in the vicinity.
Mr Melvin Chan, the fourth-generation proprietor, said business has dropped dramatically since the start of the MCO. On the afternoon of the interview, he told CNA that the shop had a grand total of 12 walk-ins since opening at 8am.
“Most of them come in to just buy a few boxes of biscuits or cakes. Normally, by this time, people are coming away with bags of biscuits in both hands, sometimes multiple trips,” he said.
Overall, sales were down by up to 95 per cent, he said. However, his situation wasn’t as bad as others, such as those selling bak kwa (barbecued pork slices), he added.
“Really, Chinese New Year is often the highest sales time for them, and a lot of stalls here depend on walk-ins."
He himself has been experimenting with online sales and marketing since the second half of 2020, but it was still a hit and miss in terms of drawing customers.
“Honestly, I lose money every day I open for business - I still pay staff wages, utilities, the ingredients and wastage,” Mr Chan said.
A walk-in customer, Steven Tan, said he had been a regular for the shop’s baked goods, coming round when he felt the urge because in his own words, he knew Fung Wong would still be open.
“Today’s purchase is just because I felt peckish, but I’ll still buy some for Chinese New Year, even if it looks like we won’t be able to celebrate it the traditional way this year,” Mr Tan said.
Mr Ang Say Tee, chairman for the Kuala Lumpur Hawkers and Petty Traders Association, said in Petaling Street's century-old history, this was the quietest it had ever been.
“The traders are caught. On one hand, the government says you can open for business, like those selling food. But on the other hand, the public is warned to go no farther than 10km from their residence for purchases. The high number of new COVID-19 cases daily also means people are scared to come out,” he said.
Shops along Petaling Street selling other festive items, like clothes, are closed as per the MCO's protocols. There are also other businesses that have decided not to operate given the low footfall in the city centre.
Mr Ang, who also heads the Malaysia Garments Wholesale Merchants Association, pointed out that wholesalers are struggling to clear over 50 shipping containers’ worth of new garments ordered in anticipation of the festive season.
One way the Petaling Street traders are attempting to remedy the situation, is by writing to the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL), the local government authority. They are asking if SOPs can be tightened so that some businesses can reopen at least for the pre-festive season.
“As it is, about 95 per cent of the 773 licensed traders here are closed. If you allow some 70 to 80 per cent of business to reopen, then we could see some business and activity in this limited period,” Mr Ang said.
DEMAND FOR DECORATIONS, HAMPERS REMAIN HIGH
Amid the MCO and expectations that Chinese New Year would be a somewhat muted experience this year, demand for festive decorations and hampers remain high, said some retailers.
Next to a used car sales lot in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, part-time sales assistant Low Kai Qing at the Daily Save decoration store was ringing up a sale.
The shop was festooned with large red lanterns, ox-themed decorations in keeping with the upcoming Chinese zodiac animal, plastic cherry blossoms and paper firecrackers.
“Actually, before the MCO was enforced, there were more people visiting every day. Currently, we have a limit of five at any one time ... it is also much slower now,” Ms Low said.
“Some customers even rushed in on the day before the MCO started (Jan 12) to get what they wanted before going back to their hometowns,” she added.
Company co-director Qeunis Cha, who with her husband run 28 shops around Peninsular Malaysia, said demand for items such as decorations were still going strong, although she said it was likely that the end profit would be about 20 per cent to 30 per cent less than previous years.
“Shipping fees have gone up for the items we’ve imported, but we’ve kept the prices constant from last year.”
“It makes sense, even if we earn less, because the customers might not be doing very well at the moment. Rather than drive them away, at least they can still decorate their houses this Chinese New Year,” she said.
“We are also doing better with online sales.”
READ: Commentary - Frustrated with tightened COVID-19 restrictions, Johor residents hope this MCO is the last
Several kilometres away in Selangor, chain gift store Jin Ye Ye (Gold Grandfather) saw a steady flow of shoppers checking out the gift hampers on sale.
Starting from Batu Pahat, Johor, the business has grown to over 100 distribution spots around Malaysia.
Jin Ye Ye's spokesperson said the chain has not been spared the effects of the MCO.“Store walk-ins are less compared to the usual days, but we’ve been leveraging on online platforms for a couple of years now,” the spokesperson said, adding that the business was prioritising going digital and enlarging its online presence.
Despite the challenges, the chain said that gifting remains a fundamental practice among Malaysia's Chinese community.
“For those who can’t even make it home, the practice becomes even more profound and moving, and the COVID-19 situation makes it even more significant,” the spokesperson added.
On Monday (Jan 19), there were 3,631 new COVID-19 cases in Malaysia, bringing the country's total to 165,371, with 39,464 active cases and 619 deaths.