Another ad with celebrities heaping expectations on poorly paid service workers will do little to fix what ails Hong Kong tourism, opines TBWA HK's Annika Park, who prefers a campaign highlighting the high-stress reality of frontliners that could help create a culture of mutual respect.

In early June 2024, the Hong Kong Tourism Board responded to increasing criticism of the city’s service levels by rebooting a campaign from 2002 starring actor Andy Lau Tak-wah (劉德華). In this series of new ads, Louis Koo Tin-lok (古天樂) is among the actors taking up the mantle and encouraging Hong Kong service staff to “go the extra mile”.

I sympathise with the tourism board, which has a tough job of restoring Hong Kong’s allure as a tourist destination. Given factors such as the changing spending habits of mainland visitors, who represent the bulk of the city’s inbound tourism traffic, and the stiffening competition from other major Asian tourism hubs, I don’t envy the position the tourism authorities are in of having to elevate Hong Kong’s appeal to tourists when everything seems to be punching down on it.

But rallying a cavalcade of picture-perfect celebrities to wag fingers at frontline service staff – or nudge waiters, sales assistants, and taxi drivers to do a little better – is not the right answer. According to a recent survey conducted by the Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association, 70% of local small and medium-sized firms reported a decline in business performance compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Hong Kong’s food and beverage industry still suffers staff shortages across the board, meaning those who are still busing tables would have to serve even more people. In fact, I’m most curious to know if any of the celebrities on the call sheet for the ads have ever worked in a service role. If so, they probably wouldn’t have taken up this job.

The reality is that the service industry, in general, is, and has always been, a tough business of serving people. Amid staffing crunches and tough economic conditions, life seems harder than ever before for this city’s often-overlooked blue-collar workforce.

While that is not an excuse for rude behaviour, the sight of well-paid actors expecting low-paid servers in the restaurant, retail, and taxi sectors to raise their standards paints a grotesque picture.

The biggest irony of it all is that in rebooting the campaign, the tourism board has inadvertently proved a point that most locals seem to know. Outside perhaps ultra-high-end restaurants, service levels have typically always been substandard in Hong Kong.

It has been two decades since Lau made famous the tagline “In this day and age, a service attitude like this isn’t enough” from the original government-sponsored campaign, and still, Hong Kong is no city of smiles. 

The fact is that much like a defiant “I’m walkin’ here!” as someone shoves you off the pavement is a sign that you’ve arrived in New York City, getting your plate taken from under you as you take your last bite from it is a Hong Kong rite of passage.

Again, this is not to condone the unprofessional behaviour of a select few who seem to think it’s OK to take out their frustration on customers or those who discriminate against customers based on where they are from or what language they speak. But if Hong Kong is still a place that most of its visitors seek out for its gritty charm, its rough-around-the-edges people are part of the package deal.

Instead of heaping expectations on minimum-wage workers, what if the stars donned dirty aprons for a day to engage and empathise with the realities of frontline restaurant work? Instead of making more inauthentic ads with celebrities acting out fake scripts, what if the Tourism Board chose to work with Koo and his legion of next-gen creatives to witness the realities of these high-pressure jobs so that customers, staff, and tourists can all cultivate a culture of mutual respect?

There is a quote widely misattributed to the late Anthony Bourdain, but that is fitting nonetheless: “You can always tell when a person has worked in a restaurant. There’s an empathy that can only be cultivated by those who’ve stood between a hungry mouth and a US$28 pork chop, a special understanding of the way a bunch of motley misfits can be a family”.

Imagine telling Bourdain that service standards shouldn’t stop at “enough”. He would probably have kicked you out of his restaurant, too.