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Hong Kong businessman sparks backlash after blaming Muslims for his restaurant’s failure in Malaysia

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).

tim ho wan sham shui po

Tim Ho Wan’s Sham Shui Po shop. Photo: Wikicommons

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.

Q: The founder of Michelin-starred restaurant Tin Ho Wan said that the main reason for the business closing in Malaysia is related to the fact that people in Malaysia do not like pork. Is this true? What is the main reason?
Q: 榮獲米芝蓮一星級的香港點心專門店「添好運」,在馬來西亞的加盟店近日全線結業。創辦人麥桂培認為,與當地不吃豬肉的飲食習慣有關。這是主要原因嗎?
A: According to media reports and further clarification from Mr. Mak, the main reason behind the shutter is the heavy loss of approximately 896,000 Malaysian Ringgit (288,000 US dollars), from which they could not recover in a short period of time. The real issue is related to business strategy — if Mr. Mak has conducted market research, he should have known there are a huge number of dim sum restaurants in Malaysia. You can found BBQ pork bun everywhere at food stands. The selling point of “steam upon order” is not appealing in Malaysia as the food culture is so diverse and dishes are always freshly cooked. The Michelin star attracted some people to line up, but it won’t be people’s primary choice in their everyday lives.

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?

A: 根據媒體報導以及麥生事後承認,添好運倒閉結業的根本原因是營業虧損89.6萬,短期內無法轉虧為盈。這裡涉及更多的應是其商業模式出現問題。如果麥生有做市場調查,就應該深知大馬點心舖非常普及,叉燒包處處可得,要吃點心在街邊大排檔就有,添好運所謂「即叫即蒸」的特色,來到食材新鮮多元的大馬,不見得會有多少優勢。米其林(港譯米芝蓮)一星的光環,確實能吸引一些人排隊品嚐,但若要深入平民日常,不會是首選。

更何況,兩家添好運專賣店都開在吉隆坡和雪蘭莪州的商場內,雖然該兩家商場都是人流眾多,剛開始營業時也有大排長龍的盛況;但高昂的租金必定拉高了許多營業成本。而根據網民塞滿各大媒體面子書專頁的留言區反饋,添好運的價格昂貴、不好吃、服務態度欠佳、味道不夠道地,才是更根本的原因。在其中一家分店的同一層,還與另一家本地點心舖打對台,但後者至今生意興隆客似雲來,他們也賣豬肉點心,怎麼不見得就因穆斯林吃不得豬肉、不夠客源而倒閉?

Q: Is the Chinese population too small in Malaysia for Chinese restaurant operators to survive in the market?
Q: 馬來西亞的華人人口是否太少,需求不足,所以一般華人飲食業經營都會不容易?
tim ho wan pork dim sum

Many of Tim Ho Wan’s dim sum items contain pork. Photo: See-ming Lee/Flickr

A: According to the 2016 census, there are about 6.65 million Chinese in Malaysia, which is equal to 23.4 percent of the national population. Mr. Mak’s claim that only 10 percent of the total population is Chinese is wrong. Of course, not all Chinese eat pork, but at the same time, not all non-Chinese are non-pork-eating Muslims.

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.

A: 首先,根據2016年人口統計,大馬華人人口665萬,佔全國人口23.4%,絕非報導中麥生估計的僅僅一成。當然,並非所有華人都吃豬肉,但也不要忘記,不是所有非華人就是吃不得豬肉的穆斯林。

而且熟知大馬的香港人都了解,大馬一直深受香港影視文化影響,對港式的飲食文化或樣態是相當熟悉且不排斥。反之,香港也極其依賴海外華人市場支撐其娛樂工業,香港藝商界來馬投資餐飲業也不是什麼新鮮事。

665萬的華人人口幾乎是九成香港人口,內需是足以支撐一般的華人餐飲業。只是若要永續經營,就不能只靠名氣。

Q: Why is the Malaysian Chinese community so upset about this news?
Q: 為甚麼事件好像引起不少馬來西亞華人的反感?

Bak kut teh, a Malaysian and Singaporean pork dish. Photo: Alpha/Flickr

A: The news has triggered a huge number of criticisms from netizens because they found Mr. Mak’s explanation to be off the mark.

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.

新聞一出,即遭來網友大肆抨擊,添好運這次是踢到了硬石,因為麥生為自己經營不善而開脫的理由太牽強,令人不齒。

添好運會祭出文化差異的理由,並像是以一個弱者形象,來強化在穆斯林為多數的大馬社會裡無法立足,背後有著自詡優越的文化姿態作祟。

大多數的海外投資,都僅僅衝著海外有華人市場這塊肥肉而來,卻對本地多樣複雜的色彩了解不足或拒絕深究,這是一種居高臨下的文化優越感造成的盲點,因此才會發生像這樣生意失敗了,還要轉頭將失實的原因怪罪於當地消費者選擇的事,令人遺憾。

其實,承認自己的叉燒包不夠好吃,真的會比賴大馬人不能吃叉燒包,來的誠實坦蕩。而這次的添好運事件會引起極大迴響,筆者認為是因為在情感上惹怒了熱愛豬肉的大馬華人。你聽過肉骨茶嗎?玻璃叉燒呢?大馬宗教問題雖然頗多,但絕對與添好運無法在當地存活無關。不要再將刻板印象粗暴地亂套入一些「異地」想象中,下一次就在營業地點、價格等實際面向上,多做點功課吧。

This article originally appeared on Global Voices. 

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Hong Kong businessman sparks backlash after blaming Muslims for his restaurant’s failure in Malaysia