China Power | Economy | East Asia

‘Buy Yellow, Eat Yellow’: The Economic Arm of Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Protests

How Hong Kong’s rising “Yellow Economy” sustains its pro-democracy movement.

By Alexandra Chan for
‘Buy Yellow, Eat Yellow’: The Economic Arm of Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Protests
Credit: Flickr/ Gavin Anderson

Just before last November’s district elections in Hong Kong, a friend brought me to a café in Sai Ying Pun. We had both asked to work from home because of the destruction near our offices. The café is close to the metro station but hidden from street view. It’s not a large space, but you can enjoy a coffee in comfort. This urban gateway also showcases different newspapers and posters supporting the protest. My friend immediately pulled out her phone and began to inform the café administrator about “Google Maps for Yellow Shops.”

This practice has become a habit for pro-democracy Hong Kongers. It is yet another way to participate in the protest movement and is becoming a new normal. Many people support this idea as a peaceful way to contribute to the protest. Even if individual participation seems indirect, mild, and insignificant, the establishment of this “Yellow Economic Circle” is one of the most radical, progressive, and innovative forms of long-term struggle against Hong Kong’s stilted political and economic power structure.

Many international observers stress Hong Kong’s economic decline after nearly six months of civil unrest. There is far less attention paid to the emergence of the “Yellow Economic Circle” and “Yellow Consumption” stemming from the grassroots in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy “Yellow Ribbons” have taken it upon themselves to create a Yellow Economic Circle with an eye to supporting shops that share democratic values and stand with the young protesters. Labelling a business as a “Yellow Shop” means that Hong Kongers who support greater democracy will prioritize consumption at these shops. Meanwhile, they will boycott “Blue Shops,” whose owners or managers stand by the Hong Kong Police or are pro-Beijing. Google Maps, websites, Facebook pages, and apps that help people identify and locate Yellow Shops are popping up as a result. People also use Instagram Stories to upload receipts from the Yellow Shops they just patronized. These Yellow Shops cover a range of industries and sectors from restaurants to fitness studios.

Retail in Hong Kong is undoubtedly facing a more difficult time due to protests and police action. The worst affected are chain stores serving tourists in protest areas and those vandalized (but not looted) because the protesters believe they support the police. In contrast, Yellow Shops tend to be small-scale, independent local stores that mainly serve their neighborhood rather than tourists.  There are currently not many chain stores options in the list; instead, the Yellow Economic Circle champions the local economy and small businesses.

How does a shop come to be categorized as “yellow”? Some provide free meals for student protesters who used up all their money to pay for transportation and helmets and other equipment. Other Yellow Shops allow employees to go on strike without retaliation or closed entirely in support of the General Strike in Hong Kong. Some stores even have their own Lennon Walls. Many Hong Kongers are asking friends and family to direct consumption toward these Yellow Shops as a grassroots initiative to sustain small, local businesses in the face of economic strain.

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When I first heard of the Yellow Economic Circle, I associated the idea with the Pink Economy –likely because of the color element. Yet the two are not the same. Pink Money involves corporations deliberately strategizing to target LGBT consumers. Much of this approach is based off market research indicating that LGBT friendly policies are the most important factor positively influencing purchasing decisions by the LGBT community. One study conducted in China by WorkForLGBT and YouGov found that 48 percent of respondents preferred to patronize businesses with LGBT-friendly policies. In the Pink Economy, the brands are taking the initiative to reach out to their targeted costumers — the Yellow Economic Circle in Hong Kong is the opposite.

The Yellow Economic Circle is driven by consumers seeking more ways of supporting the movement for democracy in Hong Kong, making it highly participatory. They want to support businesses who hold the same ideals and values as themselves. Google Map and Facebook pages such as HK Shoplist, Yellow Alliance, and Heung Shing Online Yellow Economic Circle showcase Yellow Shops and invite everyone to list new stores. People are not simply consuming at these shops. They are taking the initiative to discover new Yellow Shops in their neighborhood while making the list more comprehensive and reliable. This process encourages personal participation. Taking a lesson from global “buy local, eat local” efforts to support local farmers and the local economy, a group of participants in the Yellow Economic Circle is even crowdfunding to organize a “Yellow” Chinese New Year market for the upcoming holiday. Their call is for people to “buy yellow, eat yellow.”

Pro-democracy Hong Kongers are now mainstreaming Yellow Shops in the market so that the future generation will live in a fairer and just society. To them, this is consistent with taking a stand for freedom and democracy.

The Yellow Economic Circle reflects the fact that consumption is no longer just about fulfilling basic demands but is also about promoting particular values, concepts, and ideas behind goods and services. Consumption can be a political act. As American author, educator, and sustainable food advocate Anna Lappé notes, “Every time you spent money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” In addition to supporting Yellow Shops, there are calls within the Yellow Economic Circle to boycott Blue Shops. Blue Shops lists are available online with reminders for people to avoid them. If people discover Blue Shops, they can report them to administrators on various online platforms.

Before labelling businesses by color, administrators of online platforms will seek corroborating evidence. As there are no strict guidelines and standards for defining Yellow and Blue Shops, some disinformation and confusion admittedly exists on the lists of shops. However, these lists are being refined and have constant updates. There are ongoing attempts to improve the mechanisms for rectifying mistakes in as timely a manner as possible, often based on public feedback.

The fight for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong is a long-term one. Hong Kong’s economy has long been under the control of big businesses that are closely aligned with the political elites. Supporting Yellow Shops is not simply sympathy, but an act of solidarity and part of a struggle to democratize the economy. At its best, the Yellow Economic Circle is a fundamental step toward a social environment where local, independent, high-quality businesses can excel while providing people with real choices. This helps provide an economic foundation that can help sustain Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Alexandra Chan is a writer from Hong Kong. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone.