Down a mottled staircase in an unassuming corner of a Mong Kok shopping arcade, Joel Chan steadies a replica of a masked frontliner. Dressed in a signature all-black outfit with a single bloody eye, the figurine is part of a small collection of protest-related toys that pay tribute to Hong Kong’s ongoing pro-democracy movement.
FigureClub Toys opened in 1999. But it is only in the past six months – since the start of mass unrest in June – that Chan, the store manager, showcased such figurines.
Strewn across a stack of cardboard boxes, these creative miniatures are the work of two volunteer groups: Hongkonger Productions and Lion Rock Productions.
Chan, who participated in mass pro-democracy marches at least twice last year, said designers came up with the idea to recreate protest scenes in June. “They enjoy playing with figurines and they wanted to do something to help the frontliners,” he said, in reference to the demonstrators who lead street battles against police. “I help with sales and donations.”
Among the collection of familiar protest figures is a volunteer from Protect the Children – a group of mostly Christians and retirees who mediate on the frontlines. A medic with a first aid kit slung around their waist is also on sale, alongside a reporter clad in a trademark high-visibility vest.
Other curios included a tiny yellow umbrella, and black flags with jailed activist Edward Leung’s ubiquitous slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” plastered across.
In the front lay four peculiar faces popularised by protesters including the pig from the Reddit-like LIHKG forum and the Pepe the Frog meme, both of which came to life last month as crowds donned huge masks depicting the revered characters.
A pair of journalists – a cameraman and a female reporter – are set to be released soon, according to Chan.
As he adjusted the display, Chan delicately placed a loaf of life bread – a beloved local brand – between the feet of a protester. Several customers hovered around behind him, eyeballing the goods.
Each item sells anywhere from HK$100 to $900 per item, before student discounts. But behind the detailed miniatures lies three to six months of labour, according to Chan.
Designers undergo a painstaking process of purchasing protest goods, such as goggles and helmets, making moulds of the items, digitally reducing them to a 1:6 scale model and reproducing them using 3D printing. The templates are sent to factories in mainland China for mass production, with the exception of politically sensitive material. Parts are then sent back to Hong Kong to be assembled and decorated over the course of around a month.
This lengthy undertaking enables its designers to spare no details, thoughtfully expressed through the fabric of frontliners’ shoes down to the ridges on their pink respirators.
FigureClub Toys also sells stickers which contain popular protest slogans, such as “Five demands, not one less,” as well as postcards of figurines recreating dramatic scenes from the streets.
Since last year, demonstrators have been demanding an independent probe into police behaviour, amnesty for those arrested, universal suffrage and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.”
Chan has been inundated with orders since the protest-related items were first sold in October.
“We’ve had a lot of new customers. I can’t even count how many more we’ve had,” he said, whipping out a list of around 50 online orders placed over the past three days. “This doesn’t even include shop orders.”
One online retailer in France purchased over 30 protest-related parts to use for a collection on the anti-government yellow vest movement, he said.
The quirky figurines have also attracted a new group of clientele, Chan said – women.
“In the past, very few young women would buy the toys,” he said. “Now, there’s been a huge spike in the number of female customers, not just students but also those who are working.”
He put the surprising uptick down to displays of solidarity among protesters and the spread of information among pro-democracy circles.
‘Not making a profit’
Despite the influx of new customers, FigureClub Toys has yet to turn any profit from the figurines. Instead, all proceeds are donated to a selection of crowdfunded groups, including the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, news website Stand News, and Spark Alliance, a crowd-funded non-profit providing financial aid to Hong Kong protesters.
“We don’t make any profits. If we increase the price by HK$50, we’ll donate $50,” Chan said, explaining that each item is sold at a price higher than that at wholesale to cover production costs. “We’re not losing money, we’re just not making a profit.”
“Actually, the toy umbrella is more expensive than the real one. It costs $100!” he chuckled.
Chan said that each donation was made up of HK$30,000, and he plans to send the next lump sum to Spark Alliance, which Hong Kong police have targeted over suspicion of money laundering – an allegation the group denies.
But the sale of protest figurines has not been fruitless for Chan’s business. Curious passersby often find the protest miniatures pique their interest in other toys, prompting them to buy more. “It benefits us because people get interested in playing with action figures,” he said.
A number of stores like FigureClub Toys have also begun to sell protest-related figures, though it is unclear whether all profits are donated to the movement.
Nestled near battle-scarred Nathan Road – a regular protest flashpoint – FigureClub Toys is no stranger to ugly protester-police clashes, with volleys of tear gas fired only metres away from the front of its shopping centre.
Such activism comes with the caveat of attracting unwanted attention: “We’ve been harassed over the phone by people who accuse of selling cockroach goods,” Chan said. “They’ve threatened to trash our store but it hasn’t happened yet.”
Hong Kong police officers have been seen referring to protesters as cockroaches, though the force recently attempted to defend the use of the term as a veiled compliment.
At one point the abusive calls were occurring as frequently as multiple times a day, according to Chan. He said the problem was compounded by users who would leave abusive comments on FigureClub Toy’s Facebook page, where goods are often advertised.
Though his activities have roiled critics, Chan remains upbeat about the future of his business.
“In the 20 years that this shop has been open, the past half year has been my happiest time here,” he said. “When people buy my products they tell me to ‘add oil.’ It’s touching. I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
Hong Kong Free Press relies on direct reader support. Help safeguard independent journalism and press freedom as we invest more in freelancers, overtime, safety gear & insurance during this summer’s protests. 10 ways to support us.