When Camille calls in sick from her nine-to-five office job, she heads for Hong Kong’s wet markets and grocery stores to follow her true vocation – telling the stories of small restaurant owners and the links they form in the community.
Usually, the 23-year-old starts off by tailing a chef as he or she shops for essentials. Then she watches how the business in question handles its busy lunch hour.
As the rush subsides and the kitchen cools down, the restaurant owner often cooks an extra order for her – and sits down to tell their life story to a stranger they met just a few hours ago.
The accounts will find their way onto Camille’s Instagram account, which acts as one of the many platforms for people to find “yellow shops” – businesses that supported the city’s pro-democracy movement, in contrast to “blue” businesses seen as favouring the authorities.
However, Camille, speaking under a pseudonym, told HKFP that the political stance of the businesses she features was never the point of her stories. “I don’t want the value of a restaurant to be reduced to yellow or blue,” she said.
Whatever the motive, her channel has now attracted some 60,500 followers.
‘Yellow economic circle’
The idea of the “yellow economic circle” emerged three years ago when Hong Kong was in the grip of mass street protests against a proposed amendment to the extradition bill. Pro-democracy Hongkongers rallied to support like-minded businesses and to boycott pro-government ones, or those with ties to mainland China.
At one time, yellow businesses proudly displayed slogans and posters supporting protesters, but since Beijing’s enactment of the national security law in mid-2020, many have toned down their political colours for fear of legal risks.
According to data HKFP obtained from “yellowbluemap” – one of the few yellow shop catalogues that still updates regularly – the total number of pro-democracy businesses has not decreased and as of May stood at 5,746.
But fewer and fewer new businesses have been added to the list since the last quarter of 2020, when the number of new additions was 519. It dropped to 142 in the first three months of 2022.
Administrators of the map told HKFP their data — which might be partially outdated — was based on public records of the actions of business proprietors, their media comments and information provided by the owners or others.
A political scholar, who requested anonymity for fear of doxxing, conducted two rounds of interviews with customers of yellow shops in mid-2020 and early 2022.
The academic told HKFP that the recent interviewees were generally still willing to support the pro-democracy businesses even though they no longer explicitly express their political views. But fewer dared to publicise these yellow shops on their own social media accounts.
Against the current
But Sunny and Creamy, who co-host the popular YouTube channel arhoTV, were outliers of this trend.
HKFP met the two full-time YouTubers at their studio hidden in an industrial building at To Kwa Wan. The couple had been producing videos at home for the past five years, only renting the place in recent months.
Their new headquarters also doubled as a storage unit for Sunny and Creamy to display their beloved collections of fashion and lifestyle items, some among which were their own designs.
The couple have continued to introduce yellow shops to their subscribers – which exceeded 518,000 as of June – three years after the pro-democracy protests.
However, they told HKFP that they had felt a tangible cooldown of support for pro-democracy businesses.
From time to time, the duo will ask viewers to suggest “kind-hearted shops” to feature in their videos. While everyone used to nominate yellow shops in the past, some now also recommend eateries that side with the government. “You can feel the change of time,” Sunny said.
The two research each recommendation and stick to their principles to only feature yellow shops only.
“As we have to produce videos about restaurants anyways, why wouldn’t we help promote one of our own?” Sunny said, adding that whenever they came up with a foodie vlog idea, their next natural step was to look for related yellow shops.
Sunny said they were still boycotting big corporations that showed allegiance to the city’s authorities. He said he has not stepped foot in an MTR train since 2019, and does not even have an Octopus card.
“[Supporting pro-democracy businesses] should not be just a trend. It should be a conviction, and it ought not to waver because of the trend,” Sunny said.
The two YouTubers were not newcomers to helping smaller businesses gain exposure. Back in 2017, when the channel had only been around for a few months, they started featuring independent local restaurants
At that time, Creamy said a lot of online content was urging Hongkongers to visit mainland China for food, but the pair wanted people to learn about the countless hidden culinary gems in the city as well.
“We were doing this before 2019, we are always supporting Hongkongers.” Creamy said.
People are still here
Meanwhile, with her foodie Instagram platform, Camille wanted to showcase the strong bonds between people in the city’s communities rather than their political ideology. She said most people already knew of the latter, “especially my readers.”
But she does showcase the ways they try to help others in the community.
The owner of a Vietnamese baguette shop in Tai Kok Tsui offered his premises for free for the soft opening of another person’s restaurant. He told Camille he wanted to give other young people a chance and wasn’t concerned about the money.
To the west of Mong Kok in Kowloon, Tai Kok Tsui is shabby compared to other parts of the city but remains a tight-knit community. Camille found three stories to feature in the area.
“[I want] to tell others that, in fact these people are still here, they haven’t gone away. Just perhaps now you can no longer say things that explicitly,” she added.
Just as Camille has been struggling with whether to apply for a student visa overseas, the question of leaving or staying in Hong Kong is a staple of every interview.
Although Camille’s agenda is highlighting talented individuals who have opted to stay in the city, some people she met – including a weaver she interviewed in her first attempt to introduce a non-food business – told her they would emigrate.
Camille said she struggled before publishing that story, for fear of feeding an air of melancholy in society, but posted it in the end.
Acting as examples
In each of Sunny and Creamy’s videos, the couple make a point of always paying for their meals.
They said they were not showing off their wealth, but wanted to showcase that many yellow restaurants serve delicious dishes that are worth paying for.
As people’s passion fades, the pair said that businesses that assert their political stance have became the odd ones out.
They said that questions about whether these yellow shops were taking advantage of their pro-democracy label had grown – but the couple wanted to prove that they were wrong.
“When they are serving good food, with conscience, and share the same stance as you, why would you call them frauds?” Creamy said.
By acting as an example, they said they wanted Hongkongers to understand that “there are some things that you should be supporting with your money.”
‘With my head held high’
When the 2019 anti-extradition movement was at its most volatile, Sunny and Creamy lost all of their advertising clients. “Nobody offered to work with us,” Sunny said.
But as the heat cooled, the pair said corporations started reaching out to them again, and it became their turn to decide which brands to work with. “MTR, Hong Kong Jockey Club, Octopus, McDonald’s, KFC… We turned down all of them,” Sunny said.
They passed up a significant amount of income, but the pair said they are fine with it.
“At least I can walk with my head held high,” Creamy said, “there won’t be a case that we have to feel embarrassed for promoting blue shops.”
All costs, no profits
Although Camille’s foodie account has been active since 2019, she only started to post feature stories in February. Over the past four months, the university graduate with a full-time job has published more than 15 in-depth pieces about Hong Kong’s hidden culinary gems.
As most restaurants are busiest at weekends and bosses have little time to talk, Camille uses her holiday days or sick leave to conduct the interviews. She spends many more hours of her spare time editing photos and writing up each story.
After all that, she spends extra hours turning the paragraphs into graphics. “People on Instagram are so damned annoying,” she said, “they won’t read long articles.”
On top of the feature stories, she also publishes restaurant reviews almost daily.
Every night after work, she ventures into various parts of the city to try out different yellow restaurants. “I work in Tsuen Wan, but maybe I will deliberately take a ride to Sai Wan to have dinner,” she said.
To save money, she brings her own lunch to work and uses a borrowed camera. “I am broke as fuck,” she admits.
While her Instagram platform swallowed much of her spare time and was not making money, Camille said she felt “super happy.”
Bring the mood back
As her channel took off, Camille tried to help other journalists who worked for now- defunct outlets.
Two days after a group of former court reporters set up an outlet called the Witness on May 16, Camille published a post asking for donations to support their operation. “Are you willing to pay the price of a single bagel to support the Witness?” she wrote.
A few days later, a cafe owner reached out to her and said he wanted to offer free bagels to subscribers of the court news outlet. He hoped to revive the social atmosphere of the past, when businesses offered concessions to supporters of Apple Daily or Stand News, or to doctors and nurses who helped fight Covid.
When Camille is not searching out fresh night-time dining experiences, she often ends up at her favourite cart noodle place in Prince Edward.
Its boss kept telling her to quit her job and become a full-time YouTuber. But Camille said she might be forced to censor herself if she had to rely on her foodie identity to make a living.
HKFP asked how long she could continue with a side career which she loves but which makes no money.
“I am only 23 years old! Do I have to think of the end so soon?” she said. The day she leaves the city will also mark the end of her channel.
“[But] as long as I am here in Hong Kong, I will keep adjusting the style of my page to reach the largest number of people, and maintain this group of readers.”
“So when you want to say something, there will be people listening.”
As for Sunny and Creamy, they said they want to collaborate with more local artists moving forward, and bring their talents into the sight of the pair’s audience.
“I want to help as much I can,” Sunny said, “the culture of Hong Kong will easily disappear if everyone does nothing.”