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  • Writer's pictureVivian Li

Packed and Packaged in COVID

It was a Sunday afternoon and it was pouring outside. I was on my way to the Fresh Market up the road to buy groceries, when the weather turned on me. I managed to run for cover at the nearest gas station and was waiting for the rain to soften. Beside me was a middle-aged Hispanic man that was taking a bite of his hot dog. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and saw me watching. He asked if I wanted a bite, and I politely declined with both of us chuckling. But the napkin brought a flashback that is closer to home than people would think. It reminded me of working at my factory in Hong Kong, every summer, five years ago.

At first, I was skeptical of working at the factory, almost apprehensive about the thought, because it was new and unfamiliar. This small family business that I grew up with, was foreign to me before I fully embraced it. Two to three weeks into my ‘internship,’ my father and I started to have heated conversations. It wasn’t until my mother encouraged me to just try and be physically, mentally, and emotionally present. I tried, and I did change for the better. Working there taught me many lessons. However, the rewards from these lessons didn’t come until I arrived here, in Atlanta, five years later.

The overall decline in manufacturing needs in the last few years has become almost unbearably difficult, the protests in 2019, and the political problems between the United States and China, has created a gradual decline in business. Among many thoughts, we were all thinking about how to move forward, and if we had the strength to carry on with the addition of COVID. It was like problems stacking over problems, and none of us had control over them.

Hong Kong has been in political and emotional turmoil, ever since the political protests around August of 2019. A large part of the community had felt they were neglected of freedom, and they wanted independence from China’s control. The trade war between the United States and China has been detrimental to business, because companies and investors see the instability, and aren’t confident in the rewards or gains they once had here.

However, despite everything happening against us, the 30 employees, my father, and I still try our very best to get people eating hotdogs, their napkins. I had never known such resiliency and from how the employees continue to get up in the morning, and come to work. This resilient nature shows that it will take much more to break us.

Although all of our products have the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, Hazard Analysis, and Critical Control Point (HACCP) certification, and other licensed materials like biodegradable paper, and food-grade certifications, the business has been slowly diminishing every year. Some years have been breakthroughs, by increasing production or acquiring a new business relationship. But, in the last 10 years, manufacturing companies have been slowly closing down, even in mainland China.

“Manufacturing is an outdated industry,” says Kwun Wong, an employee of my father. Wong has been working here since he was 15, and had just turned 36 last week. “Younger people would rather work for a major corporation.” This is another problem. “Nobody wants to work in manual labor,” says my father. I winced at those words as it was also a perspective that even I was guilty of, at the beginning of my job here, at the factory. “It’s tough, it’s repetitive, it’s boring, it’s exhausting work,” says Dennis Wah, an employee that has worked here since he was 16. Wah also says that “you probably get the same amount of income as you would working as a receptionist somewhere else,” Wah scoffed, “if you could work elsewhere, why would you work here?”

That was a question that I asked Wah and Kwun, why they continue to work here if they could choose to work elsewhere. Both Wah and Kwun replied that “we’ve worked here half our lives and it’s close to home, as we both live 15 minutes away by car.” Wong explains that “it’s hard work but time flies fast, and because we’ve worked here for so long, it’s home.” As the interview ended, Wah finished with, “I wouldn’t change it unless I had no other choice.”

The protests that happened around August of 2019 had already taken a toll on business interests in Hong Kong. Instability and uncertainty have gotten investors hesitating to support businesses, never mind to open new ones. Former accountant and current cigar shop manager Ken Zhong, says that “I had a feeling things would get worse, but never thought it would be because of a pandemic.” It seems for many small business owners, the pandemic happened ‘out of the blue,’ there were no preparations or precautions. No one thought that this would happen in 2020.

However, because of the political protests, most people have already resorted to staying at home. They were only going out to make necessary trips to the grocery store, for food and supplies. As a result, when the pandemic hit Hong Kong, we were already staying at home. Furthermore, the experience we gained during SARS, showed us how to proceed. “We knew what to do and the precautions we needed to take,” my mother says, “ this knowledge created less opportunity for the coronavirus to spread.” On the other hand, the pandemic has created a lot of problems in implementing social distancing, at the factory. We had trouble getting enough hand sanitizers and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for everyone. Additionally, sticking to a curfew that changes on a weekly basis, has also been a problem, as our factory is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

My father has become very worried about the trade war happening between China and the United States. “It was never like this,” he says, “with the labeling ‘made in China’, when it’s really ‘made in Hong Kong,’ will not be good for business.” He already sees a decline in business talks, deals, and communication with American trade companies or restaurants, when the political protests broke out in Hong Kong. Now, with the addition of the trade war, it has increased difficulty in doing business internationally.” Thankfully, domestic business in Hong Kong, although fluctuates month to month, is doing relatively okay.

Because the United States is slowly backing off from doing business with Hong Kong, other countries like Australia and India, have also started to lose interest in us, too. Korea, Japan, and the Philippines are still stable, however, that may change depending on how the future unfolds. “The future is very uncertain,” says Terence Fan, a friend, and a chartered accountant says, “many small businesses are thinking of closing down for good.” Fan explains that the “limited forecasting for companies in Hong Kong can be detrimental to business.” Sharing the high levels of uncertainty describes this situation as “confusing,” and that “many are at a crossroads with no way of knowing which path to take.”

Throughout the years of difficulty, I feel that there was an untold feeling of belonging, at the factory. The employees are happy where they are and, even though it seemed boring and repetitive for me at one point, we all found solace and therapy in the methodic routine. The other 26 employees, from interviews, mirrored the same pride and love, working at the factory. Wah talked about how “everyone feels confident and happy when they know what they’re doing,” Wong also explained that “when they are good at what they’re doing, they feel that they belong.” My father says that “at least the employees that have been working here, for more than 10 years, feel that way.” Both Wah and Wong says with confidence, “we will still be here. Through the bad and the good, whatever it is.”

“Whatever comes, whatever happens, we will go through it together,” my father says. “It’s always been that way,” my mother explains that “this isn’t the time to panic, because rational thinking and logic dissipates. And, with the lack of clarity now, things can go south very quickly.” My father also explains that “everyone at the factory knows these are tough times, but they still persevere to do their best,” and gratefully he says “and that is the only thing I ask for.”

Even with the addition of COVID, the factory is still living and breathing. We still all manage to get up every morning and work hard, to get the gentlemen with a hot dog that napkin, to wipe his mouth. For the time being, it seems, we are strong and determined to keep going. From all of us at the factory, it also suggests that it will take something worse than COVID, to break this family apart. My family, the employees, and I spread our love and support to all who need it. We hope that you continue to have the strength and power to keep moving forward. No matter what life throws at you, keep going.

Extra supplementary podcast episode here

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