Pocketbook polarization: In Hong Kong, you are what you buy

Why We Wrote This

It’s not news that some Hong Kongers are deeply divided over the protests. But the “yellow economy” movement that sprung up this fall highlights how those divides are reshaping relationships, far away from the front lines.

Kelly Chiu
Hong Kong restaurateur Tim Law stands before the "Lennon Wall" of pro-democracy messages he's allowed supporters to erect on the walls of his restaurant Little Vegas. His establishment has been identified as "yellow."

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Tim Law’s Hong Kong restaurant, called Little Vegas, is decidedly yellow.

That’s not a comment on his decorating, but his politics. For months now, mobile apps have sprung up in Hong Kong to identify retailers as “yellow” – perceived as sympathetic to the pro-democracy movement – or “blue,” leaning toward Beijing and the Hong Kong establishment. 

Although the criteria for earning a blue label aren’t always clear, the financial impact can be, as protesters boycott Beijing-friendly shops. As authorities tighten avenues for legal protest, the idea of a yellow economy is one way to keep momentum going. 

Ultimately, though, it’s symbolic of deeper, long-lasting rifts in society, as issues raised by the protests separate families, classmates, and neighbors. Some protesters struggle to separate mainland peers from their authoritarian government, attempting to integrate a fiercely proud city into the mainland.

“It’s sometimes unfair,” restaurateur Mr. Law says of the blue versus yellow economies – a system that makes things seem black and white, when they’re anything but.  

“Not all the blues are so crazy to me,” he says. “There’s a kind of spectrum. I have some friends I’d call ‘light blue’ because they hate the violence.”

Being labeled “yellow” saved Ivan Lam’s restaurant business.

The Hong Kong native opened his all-day breakfast nook last year in Causeway Bay, which turned out to be a hotspot for the city’s pro-democracy movement. As the protests began ramping up last summer, Mr. Lam found his restaurant nearly empty, night after night. 

“Those were the worst days of Hong Kong,” Mr. Lam says. “No one felt like eating out. We had one table each night.”

As the months wore on, Mr. Lam allowed protesters to store gas masks and first aid supplies at his restaurant No Boundary, convenient to the front lines. Later, he allowed a permanent Lennon Wall of sticky notes – outpourings of expression modeled after the one in Prague – after authorities began taking down public versions throughout the city.

“Eventually, word got out,” says Mr. Lam. He was a pro-democracy supporter – he was “yellow.” “Blue,” on the other hand, means pro-police or pro-Hong Kong establishment, seen as aligned with the Chinese central government in Beijing.

In September, mobile apps sprung up identifying retailers by their perceived politics, as the concept of a yellow-circle economy began taking root inside the movement. That allowed people to spend their dollars accordingly, and that’s when the lines for Mr. Lam’s restaurant began snaking down the street. 

“It saved us,” says Mr. Lam, who had considered shuttering the business before the yellow circle came to life.

Indeed, as authorities have tightened avenues for legal protest, the yellow circle is one way the movement keeps momentum going. Anecdotally, there has been an economic impact. Ultimately, the yellow economy is symbolic of deeper, long-lasting rifts in society that are separating families, classmates, and others who find themselves on opposite sides.

“The yellow economy is based on personal values,” says Isaac Cheng, vice chairman of the pro-democracy political party Demosisto. “We’re trying to punish people not supportive to the movement by using money.”

Shades of blue 

No one can pinpoint the genesis of the concept – much like the protests themselves, which are leaderless and organized largely via anonymous posts. 

Sometimes, color designations seem clear; other times, less so. One restaurant was deemed blue after waitstaff were overheard commenting that protesters deserved to be “beat up” – not necessarily a reflection of the owners’ position.

“It’s sometimes unfair,” admits Hong Kong restaurateur Tim Law, recognizing the challenges of a system that makes things seem black and white, when they’re anything but.

“Not all the blues are so crazy to me,” says Mr. Law, who supports the pro-democracy movement. “There’s a kind of spectrum. I have some friends I’d call ‘light blue’ because they hate the violence.”

Make no mistake: Mr. Law’s restaurant Little Vegas is decidedly yellow. He’s given staff time off to attend protests, sent 10,000 rice bowls to the front line, and allowed Lennon Walls to spring up in his restaurant.

Lenora Chu
A closeup of a "Lennon Wall" bearing pro-democracy messages of support, which have popped up in Hong Kong's "yellow" establishments perceived to support the protests.

One benefit of the yellow economy, Mr. Law says, is that staff have found new purpose. They’re united, and customers find reasons other than menu choices and bills to converse with them. “I also feel a lot closer to my staff,” he says, “because before our conversations were more up-and-down. Now it’s more horizontal. We talk about things with meaning.”

For some retailers, being labeled blue has hurt business. The city’s $350 billion-strong economy is largely controlled by conglomerates and companies with ties to mainland China. The movement has affected brands such as Bank of China, which experienced an exodus of customers to locally-owned banks.

Also labeled blue is Starbucks, owned and franchised in Hong Kong by Maxim’s Caterers, whose founding family member called protesters who participated in cyberattacks “terrorists.” Several Starbucks stores were vandalized during the height of the violence.

Deepening divides

Whether the financial impact is short-lived or not, what’s clear is that deeper strains increasingly fracturing Hong Kong society are no passing fad.

The older generation, as a rule, tends to prefer things the way they were, while the younger idealists want freedom from Beijing at all costs. There are divisions among the protesters themselves, over methods and the amount of violence employed. Among the student population, native Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese who used to study side by side are finding politics can drive a wedge between them. For some, the mainlanders are hard to separate from their authoritarian government attempting to integrate a fiercely proud city into the mainland.

“I’ve become more distant from my mainland friends,” admits Mr. Cheng of Demosisto. “It’s better we don’t connect right now.”

Divisions have opened up within families. “I have friends who can no longer go home,” says protest organizer Ventus Lau. His family worries about him, but he counts himself lucky that they still understand each other. “This is about the city’s future. My family tells me ‘I don’t care about the city – I just care about you.’ I can understand that.”

The two sides are so polarized that pro-democracy supporters are afraid to visit beloved shops that happen to be blue, or feel compelled to go in secret.

It’s hard to envision a way out from the new normal. Restaurant owner Mr. Lam, for one, talks about a friend who committed suicide in July, leaving a note that stated “a non-democratically elected government will not respond to our demands.”

“The only way to heal this type of trauma is by getting what we want,” insists Mr. Lam, his face darkening despite the light emanating from his restaurant. “Freedom, democracy, and the five demands.”

Trying to shop neutral

Back on the street, Hong Kong homemaker Bert Liu donned a black face mask, signifying protest support, while waiting in line at Lung Mun Café. “I eat out five times a week at yellow shops,” she says. “I need to play my part.” 

Others, however, are not moved by the yellow economy. Sharon Wong finished up lunch at the blue Glee Café when she stopped to talk to the Monitor.

“I had no idea it was labeled blue,” says Ms. Wong, a native Hong Konger who works as a physiotherapist. “I have no stance on any colors. I just want to have a great lunch.”

Yet that kind of stated indifference is also a position, insist some protesters. They label it with a different kind of moniker – an animal, not a color.

They liken them to Hong Kong pigs. “They just want a normal life,” says Mr. Lau, who last week learned he faces an incitement charge, which could carry a six-year prison term. They “just want to eat and sleep.

“But this – this is our city’s future.”

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