Hey sunshine, Yellow is the new Black!
Updated: Jun 6, 2020
In case there was ever any doubt about the resilience of pro-democracy sentiment, or whether the protest movement in Hong Kong has gone off its mission, we have seen a number of protests in May with further arrests and quite a lot of manoeuvring on both sides. Despite the arrival of Summer in the Special Administrative Region (SAR), and the appearance locally that Covid-19 is under control, the National Anthem legislation and the National Security Law are sure as hell unlikely to bring a sudden blossoming of prosperity and stability to the city!
When the 'Yellow Economy' (YE) first got established in the SAR sceptics like Edward Yau Tang-wah, the secretary for commerce and economic development in the Lam government questioned the sustainability of the YE model. He warned those involved that the campaign would have difficulties being implemented and was counter to the HK free market business model. However, his view was contradicted by an economist from the University of Hong Kong at the time who said that the YE might not disappear even if the ongoing unrest is resolved.
It's certain that many retail businesses and eateries in HK have had a very difficult time surviving the Coronavirus lockdown cum 'social-distancing' rules laid down by the HK government since Lunar New Year, on top of Hongkongers' own pandemic-induced lifestyle adjustments. The YE has probably helped some businesses remain solvent, but I admit I have a very biased view on this topic, and if I did some solid research on this belief of mine who else would believe me? (read our blog here)?
What's more interesting to note is that some of the HK protesters are again targeting businesses they consider their enemy. Last year many people in HK were choosing to actively boycott or 'buycott' pro-Beijing businesses, and we witnessed attacks on specific banks, traders and restaurants deemed antagonistic for various reasons.
Now we may witnessing a revival or continuation of this tactic, that seems to echo more loudly than ever before the determination behind the "If we burn, you burn with us" slogan: It's not so much about revenge, as it is about doing economic harm so the SAR loses its appeal as a place where money can be made at the expense of people's basic freedom and human rights.
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The following opinion piece was first published by Hong Kong Free Press on 31st May, 2020.
Is yellow the new black? Why Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters targeted I.T fashion group
By Babette Radclyffe-Thomas
Last Sunday, protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong for the first time since plans for a new national security law were announced. They targeted I.T, one of Hong Kong’s most established multi-brand fashion stores and retail conglomerates, and specifically its Comme des Garçons and Bathing Ape outlet in Causeway Bay.
Protesters weren’t retaliating to anything the avant-garde Japanese label and Paris fashion week regular Comme des Garçons had done itself, but instead, protesters were targeting the label’s local partner – the I.T group, and specifically one of its founders Sham Kar Wai, as this thread details, due to his attendance at a police officer dinner earlier this year.
Although luxury malls have been sites for pro-democracy sing-alongs and scenes of police violence, up to this point international luxury brand storefronts have been left pristine whilst protesters have targeted banks, ATMs and Starbucks outlets for various pro-government alignments.
But now, for the first time, a globally renowned fashion store is a key target; a prestigious label is being drawn into a potential cultural and political mine-field due to the actions of its local partner.
I.T is a Hong Kong home-grown heritage brand, a local success story in many ways. Sham founded I.T in 1988, as a small boutique targeting younger consumers keen to purchase edgy and avant-garde labels. The store set itself apart from luxury rivals Lane Crawford and Joyce, and found success expanding into the Mainland Chinese market.
Currently, the retail conglomerate boasts a mix of several multi-brand stores such as I.T, i.t and ete!, over ten in-house and licensed brands including b+ab, Chocoolate, Izzue, as well as a wide array of mono-brand stores including Comme des Garçons.
According to the group’s interim report 2019-20, the group now offers around 200 stores, and total retail sales in Hong Kong and Macau have decreased by 6.2 per cent to HK$1,463.3 million.
I.T’s network includes many globally renowned brands including Ann Demeulemeester, Junya Watanabe, Fred Perry, Simone Rocha, McQ, Off-White C/O Virgil Abloh and Style Nanda.
Should protesters decide to target each outlet, this could mean hundreds of locations damaged across Hong Kong, and in light of the Comme des Garçons store damage, most of these global brands must surely be entering another stage in crisis management – what to do if your local partner forces you into the political crosshairs?
Hong Kong has positioned itself as a hub of luxury retail for decades, offering a glamorous base for international brands’ expansive Asian flagship stores and subsequently boasting some of the highest retail rents in the world.
Wealthy consumers from China have driven global luxury consumption and brand growth for years; for many brands the financial rewards of being apolitical outweigh the implications of taking a stance or sharing support.
This is especially important right now as the global fashion industry faces huge challenges during the post-coronavirus recovery era, after market disruptions and store lockdowns.
In Hong Kong, it seems that consumers are exercising the power of their wallets and rewarding companies who take a pro-protester stance, referred to as the “yellow economy,” in line with the recent global trend towards more conscious luxury consumption.
Not only are protesters buying yellow as an act of consumer activism and to reflect their distinctly Hong Kong identity, but protesters are also undertaking a deep level of research into brands and their owners.
Brands that are seen as “blue” are avoided and boycotted and the strategy of bringing apolitical fashion names into a political situation has impact. It makes for international news and forces wealthy decision-makers to take a stance.
To this date, I.T has not issued a statement in response to the store damage, but its social media channels continue to be flooded with comments calling for brand boycotts, reflecting a deep discontent with the company.
Brands like cult fashion favourite Comme des Garçons are being drawn into a highly politicised situation whether they want to be or not. Interestingly, multi-brand stores Lane Crawford and Joyce have not been targeted yet, despite Peter Woo Kwong-Ching’s links to the Lane Crawford Joyce Group, his publicly stated defence of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and attendance at a pro-police rally.
So will this be another nail in the coffin for Hong Kong’s reputation for ease of doing business? On top of high rents and lack of mainland Chinese consumers, international brands will surely now be asking if it is worth the high costs of having a Hong Kong location.
As consumers continue to reward brands that reflect their values, and punish those who don’t, consumer activism is not only paving the way for a new face of Hong Kong retail, but a different Hong Kong identity – one that values freedom over financial gain and where wearing yellow is always on trend.
Babette is a Hong Kong-based award-winning fashion, lifestyle and beauty journalist. She was a fashion and beauty columnist for China Daily Lifestyle Premium, Editor of S Style Magazine and has freelanced for a wide array of global publications. She is currently completing a PhD analysing Chinese fashion media.
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Talking about being caught "in the crosshairs", this week - amidst the argy-bargy over the NPC's decision to override the "two systems" part of the 'One country two systems' political model and impose its National Security legislation on the SAR - a former CE of HK C Y Leung had things to say about banking giant HSBC. Leung – a vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – wrote in a Facebook post that “it has been more than a week and HSBC has not yet expressed its position on the national security law”.
Doing his own bit of promotion for the "Red Economy" Leung called for HSBC customers to ditch the British bank in favour of mainland ones.
I am not aware of his call making such an immediate and overwhelming response that HSBC had to revise its financials or make doleful public apologies, but C Y Leung said:
"HSBC’s profits mainly come from China, but the board of directors and senior management are almost all British,” he wrote...."In terms of political issues, this self-proclaimed British bank can’t make money from China while following other Western countries trying to do damage the country’s sovereignty, dignity, and the feelings of the people...."
He went on to say in the same post that anyone with HSBC bank accounts – especially deputies to the National People’s Congress (NPC), members of the CPPCC, and Hong Kong government officials – should “protect themselves immediately and avoid becoming hostages like Huawei”, the Shenzhen-based IT giant shunned by the US and other Western countries.
Leung ended his message by saying: “We need to let British agencies like the British government, politicians, and HSBC know which side of their bread is buttered”.
You see! People are taking sides, and not just in HK!
There's another whole worldwide movement now that is about taking sides - the ABC challenge - Anywhere But China! The aim is to avoid buying products (and services) that are made in China. It could be considered a vindictive but necessary form of politics, a twist in the Cold War, that is designed to starve the CCP of the money it needs to expand its brutal regime beyond China.
Anyway, I don't think bread and butter ranks highly as either Cantonese or Chinese food, but that's just my opinion!
UPDATE: 4 June 2020, RTHK, Senior British and US politicians criticised HSBC and Standard Chartered on Thursday after the banks backed the CCP / NPC’s national security law for Hong Kong, in conflict with the British government's opposition to the proposed legislation.