Check the colour: How Hong Kong’s political unrest has created a pro-democracy F&B microeconomy

by: Nik Addams
21 Jan 2020

Anybody who’s spent enough time in Hong Kong will tell you that if there’s one thing that the people in this city don’t mind doing, it’s waiting in line for a restaurant. 

These days, however, the seemingly banal act of waiting to be seated has turned into a silent, yet powerful, political statement.

"Hong Kongers now don’t just eat for taste, but for the shop’s [political] stance," Crystal Chan, a 23-year-old freelancer explains. As a supporter of the pro-democracy movement that has swept Hong Kong over the past seven months, Chan has seen how many local independent restaurants 'have helped Hong Kongers at all costs'. 

Hong Kong democracy yellow economy - restaurant front
Some restaurants in Hong Kong have seen their façades become pro-democracy Lennon walls. (Image: Nik Addams) 

"It made me understand that as a 和理非 [wo lei fei, the local term for a peaceful/non-violent person with a pro-democracy stance] the best way to support the movement is to support more yellow shops and make eating at 'yellow' restaurants a daily habit."

The 'yellow' to which Chan refers is the colour of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. As a result of the most significant political unrest in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover, the colour has now become shorthand for businesses and people sympathetic to the cause; blue, on the other hand, is the pro-establishment colour.  

This support has led to the creation of the so-called 'yellow economic circle' (黃色經濟圈), an active grassroots network of regularly updated online forums, social media pages and encrypted mobile apps that keep track of ‘yellow’ restaurants and stores, and, often, their ‘blue’ counterparts. 

In a city in which the dollar reigns supreme and universal suffrage might never become a reality, these platforms are now allowing people who might be disenfranchised to have their dollars heard instead.

Hong Kong democracy yellow economy - bubble tea store
A storefront in Tsim Sha Tsui proudly showing its pro-democracy stance. (Image: Nik Addams)

Or, as local illustrator Knight Lai puts it: "Hong Kongers have nurtured a habit to 'check the colour' before making any purchase."

Its purpose, says Lai, is twofold: "On the one hand we economically support the pro-protest businesses and increase pro-protester’s assets; on the other hand, we encourage pro-protest businesses to make a stand and come forward, changing the erroneous mindset of 'RMB is everything'. And as the yellow economic circle is becoming known among more people, the circle is growing bigger and bigger."


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A post shared by 黎特 Knight Lai (@knightlaiart) on

Knight Lai's artwork does not pull punches. 

HKShopList is one such online resource for people wanting to support pro-democracy restaurants and retail stores. Active on Facebook, Telegram and Instagram, where they have amassed over 50,000 followers since their first post went live at the end of August, the platform began as a response to the so-called ‘triple strike’ protests on Wednesday, 12 June 2019. 

"I started thinking, many shops will respond to and participate in this strike, some will give away free food or water to protesters, or let protestors eat for free," one of the page’s founders, who offers only the name Kongcience, says. "I wanted to figure out a way to help these pro-protest shops. When I met other protesters with similar thoughts during the strikes on 5 August, we decided to start this page."

Kongcience has seen the yellow economic circle grow to something bigger than perhaps first anticipated: "In the beginning, I thought the yellow economic circle would be the main line for the movement – not everyone can come out to protest every week, but they can choose how they spend their money to support the movement. It is low cost and without consequences. Now, many industries and businesses are supporting the yellow circle and also forming supply chains, from supplies to transport to employment."


A post shared by 香港良心Guide (@hkshoplist) on

@HKShopList works with local artists to highlight 'yellow' restaurants, cafes and shops.

Mong Kok restaurant Little Fresh has been actively involved in the movement since the first public demonstration in June. Complementing their outspoken pro-democracy stance, the restaurant has delivered free meals, water, and sponsored supplies to frontline protesters, offered free meals for students in their restaurant, and handed out meal vouchers and first aid items to protesters. 

For Kay, owner of Little Fresh, the decision to go public with a political standpoint was 'natural'. "No matter how much money we make," Kay says, "this extradition law could take everything away." 

Kay says that Little Fresh has seen an upswing in customers during non-peak hours, and they have also noticed a change in their customer demographic. However, showing their political colours has led to backlash from some quarters. "After we expressed our stance, people would slander us, or make our personal information public."

Hong Kong democracy yellow economy - artwork closeup
Pro-democracy artwork beside a Lennon Wall outside a Hung Hom cha chaan teng. (Image: Nik Addams)

Overall though, Kay sees the yellow economic circle as a positive, as it has created a more conscious customer base. "Some say that two million people don't represent the masses. But the yellow economic circle will help diners think about which restaurants they should eat at." 

23-year-old PolyU student Vera Chan, who contributes to a number of the platforms driving the yellow microeconomy, has also noted a rise in more conscious, and engaged, Hong Kongers. "Customers are no longer relying on just advertisements to tell them what is good or bad," Chan says. "They are actively looking out for what’s happening in our society, and they are more aware of their own power to choose shops that align with their own values."

Hong Kong democracy yellow economy woman with artwork Mong Kok
Artwork takes its place next to menu items in a Mong Kok bubble tea store. (Image: Nik Addams)

Chan also observes a nostalgic element to the advent and growth of the yellow microeconomy. "I think each shop's stance gives them their own character, and I will now stop to listen and share my thoughts with yellow shop owners. It feels like the old days where you have a kinship with your neighbours, instead of the cookie-cutter coldness you can get from chains."

Additional reporting by Karen Chiang.