Dining out in Hong Kong now comes with a serving of politics in a city where flash mobs, street battles between protesters and riot police have been the main course for months.
Day-to-day rituals like dining out or going to a grocery store are now laden with politics in a city riven by dissension – pro- and anti-protest Hongkongers go to different restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops.
In August and September, Annie Wu, the daughter of the founder of Hong Kong’s predominant catering conglomerate Maxim’s, appeared on state broadcaster China Central Television and a United Nations hearing on human rights and chastised the months of mob violence ignited by a China extradition bill.
Before long the 150-plus Starbucks outlets run by Maxim’s throughout Hong Kong were ransacked by radical protesters, amid reports that some baristas were also attacked for working at an “unscrupulous company.”
The American coffee giant is one of several franchise brands under the umbrella of Maxim’s, along with Japan’s Genki Sushi, Arome Bakery and others that all partnered with the local food and restaurant chain, whose total revenue reached US$2.6 billion in 2018.
Starbucks and the like have suffered some hefty collateral damage as Wu’s pro-Beijing remarks were anathema to young protesters, who vented their anger by trashing more shops and restaurants under Maxim’s.
More Starbucks and Genki restaurants were targeted after Wu, 71, lamented in a recent interview that she was so dismayed that she had “given up on the city’s young people,” while violence and anarchy rumble on.
In reply, someone scrawled graffiti on shattered windows of a Starbucks shop saying Hongkongers despaired of a better tomorrow “because of Beijing and people like Wu.”
Other chain restaurants and snack stores that also find themselves engulfed in the row include beef bowl restaurant Yoshinoya and Best Mart 360, whose management was accused of muzzling employees’ right of free speech and colluding with triads and channeling them money to clamp down on protesters.
Yellow vs blue
While big brands have been embroiled as rival camps illustrate the popular divide in Hong Kong, smaller mom-and-pop eateries have not been spared either.
Still, there are some cha chaan teng, or local cafes and delis, catering for local neighborhoods who have been enjoying brisk business after their owners sided with the protesters.
For instance, there is a small restaurant chain called Lung Mun Cafe which has been chock-a-block with diners since one of its branches in east Kowloon was previously looted – allegedly by anti-protest gangsters – as its boss gave shelter to demonstrators fleeing the police’s tear gas and handed out free meals.
Those who queue up outside the cafe said they all want to patronize the cafe to show solidarity and that Hongkongers fighting for their rights would never be intimidated, according to Hong Kong papers.
Those tea shops which remained open for business even when protesters and police clashed in the streets also saw their turnover spike as many who took part in rallies rushed to their counters to quench their thirst under Hong Kong’s usual scorching weather.
Netizens have also compiled a long list of dinettes and restaurants in each district according to their political inclination to help people make their choice and go to the right place: those supporting the protests are labeled yellow while others perceived as toeing the government’s line – like those operated by Maxim’s – are grouped together as “blue businesses” that must be boycotted.
The list, available on OpenRice, a Yelp-like crowd review app popular among diners in the city, now covers about 2,800 restaurants. More than 1,000 are labeled yellow and 1,500 are blue.
Apparently, with the strong political additives, even simple dinners offered by these “yellow” eateries are enough to satiate the gourmets who identify with protesters.
But patriotic mainlanders in Hong Kong, families of police constables as well as businessmen who sit on official committees in the city and on the mainland have also begun to throng to “blue” shops and throw pro-police parties there to assert their stance and allegiance.
That said, the five months of unrest that spooks visitors and spoils the appetite of locals means an unpalatable reality facing Hong Kong’s catering sector.
With many now counting their losses, preliminary figure from an industrial association said the industry’s total takings dropped by HK$7.5 billion between June and August, with about 200 already serving their last supper.