Coffee shop cheats customers, and other scandals

I bumped into a long-lost former colleague en route to the office this morning, and he suggested we have a quick coffee in the nearest convenient place: the Starbucks in the ground floor foyer of Jardine House. It was around 8.15. We ordered and paid quickly enough but then found that some eight or so people were already milling around the far end of the counter waiting for their drinks. We joined the throng and watched the harassed serving wench darting back and forth, squirting steaming liquid into cups, putting lids on them and setting them on the counter with bilingual announcements of their contents.

Coffees came, and coffees went. The line of customers coming in to order lengthened, and the group waiting to get what they had paid for grew bigger. Some busy inhabitant of this building of investment bankers apparently gave up hope at some stage, leaving a single cappuccino unclaimed. It was five minutes after we had ordered our double espressos, and I was tempted to grab it instead – but self-consciousness got the better of me: wasn’t everyone thinking the same thing, and wouldn’t they all look at me as the impatient delinquent who took someone else’s drink? So we waited some more.

Various giant lattes were delivered and scooped up, the crowds at either end of the production line grew even bigger, and any chance of getting a member of staff’s attention was lost. My watch was approaching 8.26, and I turned to my friend and said I had to be somewhere at 8.30. He did too. So we retreated with no coffee to show for our money and time. “We must, um, do this again sometime,” were my parting words. The amazing thing is that so many of the people in that Starbucks seemed to regard this half-anarchic half-Stalinist retail experience as a perfectly normal and even enjoyable start to the day.

How different it would have been as one of the 66,500 of 237,000 voters eligible to take part in the absurdity yesterday  known as the 2011 Election Committee Subsector Elections, with heavily staffed polling stations handling – by my calculation – an average of one customer every two minutes. In some constituencies, like the shoeshiners’ parade known as the CPPCC, the results have an almost North Korean feel about them.

I suggested a few days ago that electors in the Commercial (First) Subsector might like to vote for a trio – Messrs Cautherley, Shaw and Wong – who had pointedly endorsed the principle of government for Hong Kong as a whole rather than for vested interests. Three of the 21 candidates failed to be returned; can you guess which three?

Click to hear ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ by Calexico/Roger McGuinn!

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24 Responses to Coffee shop cheats customers, and other scandals

  1. Salvatore Gucci says:

    Yesterday I spent 30 minutes standing in a roped-off queue for THE CASHIER at Crabtree & Evelyn buying the must-have Christmas present.

    No queue to get into the store and grab the goodies, but torture to pay and leave.

    The queue is actually situated outside the shop in the corridor of the mall. The temptation to walk away, with or without the goods, arose at ever-increasing intervals.

    Just two cashiers serving a long line of customers who were, conservatively estimated, purchasing at least HK$1,000 of products (most had bags full of the stuff).

    Apparently, no thought to paying $50 an hour to an employee to solicit cash payment from the close-to-fainting customers waiting in line, or maybe adding a couple more cashiers. I saw several people quit the line in disgust just during my tenure there.

    If only the owners of the company could witness the colossal amount of sales being lost due to idiotic management and appalling customer service!

  2. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    The joys of Hong Kong retail service, where overworked sales staff studiously avoid any eye contact with waiting customers, let alone acknowledgment. A simple “Sorry sir, but we’ll be with you as soon as we can” would make me feel at least noticed, but perhaps they are accustomed to customers who will seize upon any acknowledgment to demand immediate service. Who knows?

  3. Health Warning says:

    Starbucks was right. People of your age shouldn’t be getting double espressos. Stick to Horlicks. It goes with your writing.

  4. Joe Blow says:

    If you pay 20 to 30 dollars for a cup of very average coffee, served in a PAPER cup, from a SELF-SERVICE counter, and having to queue for that privilege as well, than the joke is on the suckers who actually go there.

  5. maugrim says:

    Im surprised a burst of angry gweilo symptom didn’t get things moving chop chop so to speak.

    As to Starbucks, WTF is the convention whereby it has become a defacto public library? Students of all sorts cradle a small drink all day and use the place as a comfy study venue. Other customers can either stand or leave, too bad if you want something to eat. From a business sense it defies logic.

  6. boo says:

    @Joe Blow. Yes, and you forgot to mention, as a final humiliation, they force you to order in Italian.

  7. M says:

    The trick is to deaden your tastebuds and train them to like the standard brewed coffee. The cashier him(or her)self no less is, under the rules of Starbuck’s fleet command, required to pour this for you and not pass to a barrista. Therefore you don’t have to wait at the end of the counter waiting, hoping and praying your triple choc cream caramelatto.

  8. Claw says:


    The angry gwailo burst doesn’t work as well as it used to.

    The reason you pay so much for the coffee in Starbucks is to cover the lack of spending by those studying students.

  9. maugrim says:

    Within the Commercial (first) subsector of the elections were:
    Chugh Manohar Thakurdas and Lie-A-Cheong. How could we ever even make up names like Lie-A ?

  10. Real Tax Payer says:

    I too also find Starbucks service painfully slow : even just to buy a sandwich let alone a coffee

    But more to the point : what a pathetic turnout for the electoral committee yesterday. 27% These are the only tax-payers ( some I bet not even tax payers) eligible to elect the people who will elect our next LEADER and 73% of them con’t even get off their arses : or does that mean that the 73% also despise the system same we non -eligible tax payers do ?

    On another note : did anyone else read Philip Bowring’s column in Sunday’s SCMP . What a scathing inditement of cronyism

  11. Old Timer says:

    It’s the law in Hong Kong – Macdonald’s for jobbing English Teachers and freelance Insurance Salesmen, Starbucks for Bookworms and Pyramid Schemers.

  12. On Da Lo says:

    Isn’t the answer just to not drink coffee?

  13. Disillusioned says:

    RTP: Thanks for the tip. Bowring’s cup of frustration clearly runneth over, and who can blame him? Misfeasance, nonfeasance, whatever you want to call it, the acts and omissions of our “administration” are increasingly absurd and outrageous. Most of its inhabitants seem to be liars, narcissists or imbeciles. I feel sorry for the few who are trying to do the right thing from within a rotten system.

  14. Iffy says:

    The issue in my neighbourhood is monopoly. Pacific Coffee used to shoulder its share of the burden (with better coffee, edible food, 2-for-1 deals and comfy chairs) until it was pushed out by rising rents and replaced with a bank. Now the only option is to queue with the angry mob at Starf***ers, which seems to regularly renovate its premises to increase the density and discomfort of the seating. At least it still employs cute baristas.

  15. Sen says:

    Don’t say no just get a mypressi and zap your own espresso on demand- even at a dai pai dong

  16. Stephen says:

    Lets see if i remember this correctly. In HK;

    Starbucks = Jardine Matheson (Maxims)
    Pacific Coffee = Swire

    Good to see the old “Hongs” still able to corner a market.

  17. Big Al says:

    Avoid the hell of ordering coffee and opt, instead, for tea.

  18. Mary Hinge says:

    Ah, there’s just so much to be learnt from coffee-shop gossip. As I once overheard Ronny Tong SC saying to Gladys Li SC: “The best way to end up paying good money for nothing from an incompetent is to engage a Hong Kong barista.”

  19. Real Tax Payer says:

    Here’s the full text of Philip Bowring’s op-ed from yesterday’s Sunday SCMP

    It’s worth reading….. even if you can’t get a decent cup of coffee ( Tip: buy a Nespresso machine !)


    The implicit corruption of the Hong Kong political system has been on full display in recent weeks at various levels of importance. It had seemed encouraging that Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who holds the difficult but crucial development portfolio, was seeing more backbone than her senior colleagues in seeking to bring law and order to land and building issues in the New Territories.
    Heung Yee Kuk boss Lau Wong-fat’s boys showed their true colours with their huge, threatening demonstration against her. One hundred years after the 1911 revolution, they sought to perpetuate the last vestige of feudalism in China through a so-called village house policy. This is not an ancestral right but a colonial response to kuk demands introduced in 1972. It has since made the so-called villagers into a large class of rentiers now apparently also immune from the law.

    Lam seemed not to be impressed by kuk threats. But this is at best a lone stand by her that is destined to fail because, already, Henry Tang Ying-yen, who as chief secretary for years was ultimately responsible for the failure to enforce laws and planning regulations, has already been out bidding for the 28 votes of the kuk in the “rotten borough” chief executive election. He suggested the small-house policy might be extended, allowing such houses to rise to six or nine storeys, rather than the three now allowed but frequently exceeded without penalty. Failure to enforce important laws against influential people is just the sort of governance failure common to third-world countries and an issue where Hong Kong is supposed to set an example to the mainland.

    Hopes of any improvement have drained away. The kuk urged its members to use appeals and other delaying tactics to avert law enforcement, looking to the future when a new chief executive would be in place and Lam moved to another portfolio. But even that soon became unnecessary when Lam’s bureau itself came up with a policy paper designed to avoid doing anything serious for years to come. Using classic delaying tactics, the bureau, which is supposed to be responsible for this issue, now insists that its staff are not competent and so it must recruit a professional officer to formulate and then oversee implementation plans. And, first, it must get funding approval from the Legislative Council! So now we are told to look at a 10-year time horizon for enforcing the law on Lau’s voters.

    The whole situations stinks and calls out for the Independent Commission Against Corruption to take over where the Ombudsman’s damning April report left off. The same principles that make real estate, utilities and public works the most corruption-prone, according to Transparency International, apply as much in Hong Kong as, say, Indonesia.

    In the case of the failure to implement fire and building regulations in the older and most crowded parts of Hong Kong, the situation is more complicated. But it seems bureaucrats only bestir themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as the recent fire in Mong Kok or last year’s building collapse in Hung Hom.

    Individuals may be free to choose to live in cramped, unhygienic or dangerous conditions. For sure, in some countries, the nanny state goes too far in trying to protect individuals against their own decisions.

    But the government is not at liberty to decline to enforce rules aimed at public safety. There are some instances where well-placed firms appear to be beneficiaries of these selective enforcement policies. But, more generally, they are the result of government attempts to cover up its own failures in land and housing policies, following its abandonment of the social housing that is still badly needed in urban areas.

    Another, less important but even more revealing level of law enforcement failure relates to car parking. If in, say, Manila, illegally parked cars were causing traffic disruption along key roads on a daily basis, one would assume that traffic policemen were being paid to turn a blind eye.

    In Hong Kong, such petty police corruption is rare. The orders not to enforce stopping and parking rules come from much higher up, from the political level, and are often aimed at making life easy for important people who cannot walk a few blocks to their car or wait for the driver to arrive from a nearby car park.

    Once a few posh cars get away with it, other citizens take advantage and police and traffic wardens are not going to expose themselves to corruption allegations by ticketing one car and not another.

    The same officials who give immunity to limousine owners to cause traffic chaos routinely order the confiscation of bicycles harmlessly parked near outlying island ferry terminals and New Territories stations. What more evidence of sleaze do you need?

    For sure, flexible law enforcement is desirable when no harm is being done. But creating daily traffic disruption to please a few self-important people, or politically influential ones, is the behaviour one expects from places governed in the interests of an elite, not those of the public.

    It is a consequence both of the political system and of the self-satisfied top bureaucrats who not only administer it but increasingly are in open alliance with its narrowest interests. A direct line runs from the kuk protest to the fire and the traffic jams in Central – it passes through Tamar.

  20. mumphLT says:

    I have to say I have a good chortle watching the Big6 & fools queuing up in all weathers for hours just to get into Chanel or Prada or such like. Queuing up – for the chance to go into a shop and spend multiple thousands of dollars on a banded bag or such that reflects the lifestyle to which they aspire…

    …standing in queues being treated like sad twats that are easily parted from their hard earned.

  21. Claw says:


    Thanks for that. Regrettably, Bowring is only too accurate.

    Regarding the turnout for the 1200 election, I’m sure that enthusiasm has been affected by the knowledge that nost of the results are preordained. It is notable that in the sub-sectors with enough electors to have a genuine competition the pan democrats did better than they expected.

  22. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Bowring’s piece is a masterful survey of the ills affecting everyday life here: essentially selective enforcement amounting to discrimination, which in turn constitutes a low level of corruption.

    However, the solution to a dysfunctional system is not that easy. Just picking on the small potatoes, the pragmatic and efficient-in-its-own-terms enforcement methods adapted to local culture, is much of the problem. Where Bowring’s argument falters in my view is in suggesting involving the ICAC, which is a sledgehammer not designed for such nuts. It doesn’t have the manpower and, in any case, like the courts — about the only other institution with its head above water — it would lose authority (code for: it would be submerged by stupid complaints) if it had to get into dogfights with the Kuk, with all its cunning feints and sneaky attacks.

    It requires a great deal of knowledge and determination to change the working methods of government departments, especially those failing in their duty. Just sending in the police or the super-police only helps if there’s already a smoking gun. Carrie Lam’s stupid promises, which seemed to echo those made 10 years ago, which themselves…, can only be salvaged at the highest levels of the government. Tang can’t do it, and Leung won’t, so we’re stuck. Now if Regina Ip were in charge…

  23. Ulaca says:

    Um, that should be the CPPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) not the CCPCC (Communist Party of China Central Committee).

  24. Actually starbucks used to be inside barnes and noble and borders and other book stores. I knew people that would literally spend 8 hours a day in chatrooms with ips indicating they were in a starbucks inside a bookstore which leads/led to all kind of questions. Try a mcdonalds in vancover. Much worse however these days they have high speed internet. But they put up signs that say “no loitering”. Which I guess really means “Spend more money, spend less time eating it or we dont want your business”. Starbucks was “good” when they were independent in washington state. Now they are corporate, they are no good. I only walk by very slowly when I need to steal the high speed internet on my phone.

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