PETALING JAYA: Whenever Petaling Street is mentioned, one would instantly think of the fiesta-like atmosphere of the lively bustling lane which hosts more than 700 stalls selling various merchandise and goods.
The tourist hotspot is usually teeming with visitors on weekends and public holidays, and since it’s Chinatown, whenever the lunar new year comes around one can expect the place to be filled with shoppers making preparations for the festive season.
Aside from being a historical and cultural site in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, the area has also become one of the must-visit sites for foreigners whenever it’s Chinese New Year, to get a taste of the festivities.
But the vibrancy and buzz of the lunar new year were sadly missing this year when FMT visited Petaling Street, with an eerie silence brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and movement control order (MCO).
While lanterns were hung and some premises tried to keep the festive spirit alive, some shops were closed, the usual festive activities were banned and the businessmen that lined the street were all quiet, as though resigned to their fate of a less than profitable new year.
Visitors were few and far between, which made physical distancing that much easier, while premises that chose to stay open were operating in strict compliance with Covid-19 standard operating procedures.
Lai Wei, a 57-year-old trader selling assorted items for Chinese New Year celebrations, said his income has gone down by 75% ever since the MCO in March last year.
When met at his store in Petaling Street, he told FMT that there were only a handful of customers who would come to buy his goods from morning to noon, while the afternoons were usually quiet.
“Most of them only buy lanterns but in small quantities,” he said, adding that the demand for lanterns was not affected as much since it was a tradition for celebrants to buy new lanterns for the lunar new year.
A clothes trader, who only wanted to be known as Fong, believed that the lack of visitors was caused by the ban on interstate and inter-district travel, which had limited their clientele, as well as the overall fear of the Covid-19 situation.
“People are scared to come to Petaling Street because it’s a red zone. In fact, before this, it was said there was a Covid-19 death here, making people even more afraid. What can we do?
“Personally, I didn’t make any preparations this year for the festive season. We can’t even go out, so we’ll just stay at home. And I think other people will be doing the same,” he said, still able to chuckle despite the lack of business.
A silver lining for him is that he’s taken the initiative to move his trade online, making house-to-house deliveries.
“It’s a dark year for us. It’s difficult for people to come out with the MCO, so we deliver to them now.”
Eveline, a 40-year-old employee at a barbecued meat store, said business was especially bad this year with sales dropping by 80% and the shop being forced to close early. To cope, the shop now sells mixed rice for some additional income.
“Before Covid-19 we had a lot of customers. Even getting a five-minute break from work was a difficult thing to ask, because there were so many customers. It was difficult to even move in the shop. But this year, you can see that it’s empty.
“Most of our customers come from outside of Kuala Lumpur. Even Indonesians and other foreign tourists would flock here in the new year. In fact, we would earn tens of thousands (of ringgit) daily during Chinese New Year,” she said.
She added that, prior to Covid-19, the shop would stay open until late at night, with customers coming in droves with their family and friends for supper.
“We’d set up tables all along the walkway in front of our shop. Usually from Jan 30 onwards until the third day of the new year, we would be so busy, the customers would be unending.
“This year? Nothing. You can’t dine-in and even if you could, it would be two per table at most,” said Vivien, who hails from Sarawak.
When asked about the fate of her colleagues during the MCO, she said her employer was forced to cut salaries by 40%, although no one was fired. However, most of her foreign colleagues voluntarily stopped working.
She said her boss was nice and empathetic, and they too were understanding of the business’ situation, but were also thankful that their salaries for January and February were paid in advance since it was the festive season.
Mei Yee, a traditional biscuit maker, said she decided to reduce her production this year in order to avoid massive losses, having expected a drop in customers.
“I’m just selling the basics, that’s all. I don’t want to do too much since customers are few.”
Her sentiments are shared by florist Chan Wai Leong, whose business has been severely affected, with a 90% decrease in sales.
“Usually there’s a big demand for chrysanthemum flowers, but this year there are so few customers,” said Chan, who has been running his business for 20 years in Petaling Street.
Meanwhile, several visitors said celebrations this year would be more moderate, telling FMT that they were only going to buy basic items such as lanterns, flowers and just some cookies since there would be no visiting allowed.