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Karaoke ban no surprise, says Junel’s owner

02 April 2020

By Daisy CL Mandap

Junel's had its grand re-opening at its new location in January this year

The day before the Hong Kong government decided to clamp down on karaoke bars to stop a surge in Covid-19 cases, the owners of Junel’s Resto-Bar in Sai Ying Pun decided to put away their treasured microphones and song books.

That was because of reports that came out that day that five people who got together at a karaoke bar in Tsim Sha Tsui all tested positive for the coronavirus disease.

“Mabuti na yung sigurado, para sa amin din iyon,” says 63-year-old Julia Mangrobang, who, with her husband Alvin, run Junel’s, a favorite sing-along place of many Filipino migrants and expatriates in Hong Kong for more than a decade.

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On Wednesday, two more people in the group that sang together at the TST bar were also found infected, prompting Hong Kong officials to order the closure of all karaoke lounges for the next 14 days.

For Mangrobang, the order did not come as a surprise, especially after a big cluster of infections were reported earlier in several bars across Hong Kong where mostly Filipino band members played.

It was only a matter of time before the karaokes, where people not just talk close to each other because of the noise but also share microphones, were also hit by the pandemic.


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“Noon pa naman, sinasabi ko na na laging lagyan ng takip ang mga microphone, kasi madaling mabugahan yan ng mga kumakanta,” she says.

Thus, as soon as they heard that a karaoke lounge had taken a hit from the virus, Julie and Alvin decided to stop the singing in their resto-bar, and just serve food.

They’re lucky because many of their customers go to their place not just for the singing, but also for the home-cooked Filipino dishes that they serve. In fact, many patrons go to them for just a quick lunch, or to order take-away.

It is their take-home service that has helped keep them afloat since the virus began making its presence felt in the city, says Julie.
Since early March, she says many people have stopped coming by to party at her place. The numbers declined further when news broke that several musicians and staff of Insomnia in Lan Kwai Fong and two other bars in Wanchai, began testing positive for Covid-19.
 
Julie inside the bar she started in 1999
As a result, Julie says her regular customers, mostly Westerners who used to pack Junel’s on Friday and Saturday nights, began staying away.

Filipinos, too, who used to come on other days – professional workers who preferred weekday nights - and migrant workers who would come on their Sunday day-off, both for lunch and dinner.

Business got so bad that on a weekday night recently, all she made was $135, Julie says.
On Sunday, Mar 29, the last time she opened her bar to karaoke patrons, only four people came, and the only amount that went into her cash register was $844.

That came as a bit of a shock to Julie whose avid supporters helped her raise enough fund last year so she could move and refurbish a new place, after her landlord at the former Junel’s site in the same neighborhood had jacked up the rent.

Junel’s moved to its new location on On Ning Lane in August last year, but had its grand opening night only in January this year, with a huge crowd to cheer it on.

But just a scant two months after, business is almost at a standstill. Julie says people still come to eat, but most are in no mood to linger. “Eat and run lahat,” she says.

But she’s well aware that the contagion is real, and may linger for a while. She relates that some family members in the Philippines have been unable to visit since a travel ban for Hong Kong-bound tourists was imposed by the Manila government in early February.

“Nakailang rebook na ako ng ticket nila,” she shares. “Kailan kaya sila pwedeng makapunta dito?”

Recently, she says an ambulance came to take away a guest at the nearby Best Western Hotel, possibly someone under quarantine who just returned a positive result for Covid-19.

But like most small business owners in Hong Kong who have had to deal with the double whammy brought on by the raucous anti-government protests in the second half of last year, and now, the virus, Julie is prepared to hunker down for the leaner days ahead.

Having seen how her community of karaoke lovers had come around to help keep her bar afloat, Julie knows that when the days are better, she can again count on them for support. Definitely, with karaoke back on the menu, so they can again sing the blues away.


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