It was just over a decade ago that Junels Restobar opened its doors to the public. Situated down a small, nondescript alley in Sai Ying Pun, Junels has long been a fixture among Filipinos and expats, offering cheap drinks, Pinoy food and a beast of a sound system for belting out Tagalog power ballads.
Business wasn’t always booming, though. Owner Julia Mangrobang, 63, remembers struggling in the early years, unsure of whether her investment would pay off.
“[Even] after three years, I cried every night, because I had no profits,” says Manila-born Mangrobang, who moved to Hong Kong in 1984 to work as a domestic helper and took out personal loans to open Junels.
Image: Stephanie Teng
But her fortunes changed as word spread beyond the Filipino community of a friendly and inclusive karaoke bar just off Water Street. The punters started to pour in, and Junels earned the reputation it maintains today as one of the city’s best karaoke spots.
Last April, however, Mangrobang received a notice of eviction, a turn of events that caught her off guard. “I told [our regular customers], ‘I’m going back to the Philippines, back to my home,’” she says.
The soaring cost of rent in newly trendy areas like Sai Ying Pun has put several businesses under strain. Recently, rent hikes and snap decisions by landlords have forced popular independent venues Sense 99 and Grappa’s Cellar to shutter in Sheung Wan. The social cost of losing Junels, however, quickly registered with communities across Hong Kong.
Regular customer Alison Tan was adamant more could be done to save it. With her husband Sotiris, she coordinated a campaign to help find a new home for Junels and pay for extensive refit costs (an estimated $150,000). The two set up a crowd-funding drive; asked for donated goods and services from engineers, interior designers, local suppliers and more; and organised a fundraising event to be held on July 27. The event has generated notable interest, with nearly 300 users registering interest to attend so far (Junels has a max capacity of 70). “I wanted to harness the kinship that I had felt so many nights in Junels to make a difference,” she says.
Mangrobang credits Tan for convincing her to reach out to and lean on the community for support. “At first, I was shy because fundraising [always struck me as something] for those who are really in need,” she admits. But Tan helped change her mind; Junels, she argued, was so important to the community that asking for help was justified.
Image: Stephanie Teng
“[Junels] is where domestic helpers come on their days off,” says Tan. “Expats and Hongkongers have other options. But do the communities that Junels serves have the same luxury?”
Anyone planning to attend the fundraiser on July 27 can expect to see “a community in action, a packed house of people dressed as their favourite singers,” according to Tan, who suggests bringing cash or downloading the PayMe app to support the cause.
Those in attendance will also see an emotional Magrobang hard at work. “When I think about people supporting me, I can’t [help but] cry,” she says. “They give me strength, they give me courage.” By Carla Thomas