Plans disrupted for S'poreans based in China

Many forced to make alternative travel, work arrangements amid coronavirus outbreak

He was supposed to be at the helm of House of Seafood's second Chinese outlet in Shenyang, but the restaurant group's executive chef Ray Tso counts himself lucky because he was asked to return to Singapore at the end of last year to help prepare for the opening of the company's third outlet here.

Speaking to The Straits Times last week, Mr Tso said he would have been stuck in Shenyang otherwise, as most of the flights out of the city in north-east China had been cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak in China.

The seafood restaurant group's two outlets in Shenyang and Chengdu have been closed since the start of the Chinese New Year after the outbreak of the virus, which was first reported in Wuhan and has infected more than 43,000 and killed over 1,000 globally.

The shopping centres where House of Seafood's outlets are located have been closed for an extended period as a result.

Mr Tso, 62, who has spent the last year shuttling between Chengdu, Shenyang and Singapore after both outlets in China opened last year, said: "The Shenyang outlet keeps asking me to go back to help out, and it's not that I don't want to, but flights have been cancelled."

The virus outbreak has had a significant impact on the restaurant group's operations in China, he said.

"We ordered hundreds of kilograms of crabs before the Chinese New Year," Mr Tso said.

But the food which they had purchased in anticipation of the peak holiday period has gone to waste, with the extended closure and group bookings cancelled.

The restaurant group's managing director Francis Ng, 48, said that his business development team's discussions to open three more outlets in China this year have been delayed because of the reduced travel options to and across China.

Uniforms and kitchenware for his new Singapore outlet which were ordered from China have also been delayed because of disruptions in the logistics chains, he added.

"If we are unable to get the items over to Singapore on time, we would have to source for them locally or from Malaysia, but the costs will be higher," Mr Ng said.

Several other Singaporeans based in China are also facing uncertainty in their work arrangements.

Ms Sabrina Goh, who is the country lead in China for marketing technology firm Verticurl, is currently working from her company's Singapore office.

The 36-year-old flew back on Jan 17 for the Chinese New Year holiday and was due to return to Beijing on Monday, which was when the extended Chinese New Year break was due to end in the capital.

But her return has been delayed indefinitely, because of the uncertainty around the virus outbreak, Ms Goh said.

She is now working remotely from Singapore and using teleconferencing to communicate with her clients and colleagues in China, who are also working from home because of the virus outbreak.

But, while her job scope is unchanged, there is a marked difference between working from home in Singapore and doing so in China.

"In Beijing, I am usually based in my client's office. It is possible to do the same work remotely, but Chinese clients prefer to meet you face to face," she added. "In this situation, it's out of our control."

But while some Singaporeans are staying put at home after returning to Singapore for the Chinese New Year break, others have gone back to work in China.

Mr Grayson Yun, 39, recently returned to Singapore for a week during the Chinese New Year break and flew back to Beijing on Jan 29.

He had planned to fly to his wife's hometown, Jilin City, in north-east China on Jan 28, but cancelled the trip "to reduce exposure risk to airports and railway stations".

"The shopping centres have shorter operating hours, about 90 per cent of restaurants are closed, and (food delivery) options are limited," Mr Yun said, adding that most people leave their homes only to go to the supermarkets.

The general manager of a Hong Kong retail developer, who has been based in China for eight years, said that he is currently working from home and most of his meetings are conducted online.

While he feels that the situation should go back to normal soon, Mr Yun said things are still uncertain and everyone is adapting on the fly. "Right now, it is still unpredictable and there is no clear precedent set (for operating procedures), so a lot of company policies are changing week by week," he said.