By Chinese Border-crossing Q&A
A popular Hong Kong-based dim sum restaurant, Tim Ho Wan, decided to shut down its business in Malaysia on July 4 after entering the Malaysian market three years ago. When explaining the decision to Hong Kong media outlets, the founder of the Michelin-starred restaurant, Mak Gui Pui, said the business failed because of cultural differences — the majority of the population in Malaysia is Muslim and don’t eat pork, while pork is the main ingredient in dim sum dishes like BBQ pork bun and shao mai (steamed pork dumpling).
It was for this reason, he said, that the restaurant did not have enough customers and suffered from heavy losses. He also compared running a Chinese restaurant in Malaysia to “operating a sauna business in a remote desert.”
The news triggered some discussion among Malaysian Chinese. Many have argued that it is irresponsible for Mak Gui Pui to blame Muslim culture for his business failure.
The Chinese Cross-Border Question and Answer project interviewed a Malaysian Chinese citizen journalist, Wan Qing, about the issue.
Moreover, the two Tim Ho Wan restaurants were located in Columbo and Selangor’s shopping malls. While the influx of customers is huge and there had been very long queues outside the restaurants in the beginning, the expensive rent must have raised operation costs. According to reactions from Malaysian netizens on Facebook, the price of Tim Ho Wan is too high, the quality of food is so and so, service is poor and the flavors of the dishes were not localized. These are more likely the main reasons for its failure. Actually, in the shopping mall home to Tim Ho Wan’s branch, there is another dim sum restaurant competitor. It has a large number of customers and they also sell dim sum with pork. How come it has not been suffered from a lack of customers because of Muslim pork-less food culture?
Those who have a basic understanding of Malaysia would have known that Malaysia has been greatly influenced by Hong Kong movie and TV culture, they embrace the food culture and would not reject it. At the same time, Hong Kong’s entertainment industry has depended on the overseas Chinese market, and the entertainment sector has also invested in food businesses in Malaysia. There is nothing new about the sector.
The 6.65 million Chinese population is equal to 90 percent of Hong Kong’s population, so it can support the Chinese restaurant business. The core issue is that a sustainable business should not be dependent on reputation only.
Tim Ho Wan use of cultural differences as an explanation is an attempt to paint a picture of a cultural minority versus the Malaysian Muslim majority. At the same time, there is a sense of cultural superiority in the presentation.
The majority of overseas investment in Malaysia just wants a share in the Chinese market but has not done enough research into the country’s diverse cultures. They impose their own culture onto the community, which has resulted in a sense of cultural superiority and hence a failure in business. It is regretful that the business blames its failure on local customers’ preferences.
It is more genuine and convincing to say that [Tim Ho Wan’s] BBQ pork bun failed to cater to customers’ tastes than to say that Malaysians cannot eat BBQ pork bun [because of Muslim culture].
The reaction is also due to the fact that Malaysian Chinese really love pork. Have you heard of Bak Kut Teh and Glass BBQ pork? Though Malaysia has religious conflicts, it has nothing to do with the closure of Tim Ho Wan. I would say, please do not project your stereotypes onto the imaginary other and do more homework for your business strategy.
This article originally appeared on Global Voices.