Appearing in court was a nerve-racking experience for 24-year-old Ng, one of the thousands of Hongkongers arrested during more than a year of protests. But there was one consolation.
“It was my first time to wear a shirt that fits,” Ng told HKFP with a grin on his face.
He is one of scores of people who have been smartened up for court thanks to a tailors’ called Zuitable – a pro-protest “yellow” shop.
“Yellow” denotes businesses – restaurants, shops and various service providers – which have shown their support for the pro-democracy protests. Netizens have written apps and drafted maps to highlight them.
Zuitable, for example, was one of the businesses which took part in a city-wide strike at the height of the protests.
“Blue” shops, on the other hand, are seen as hostile to protesters and as such are subject to boycotts. Beijing’s representatives have slammed the distinction as violating free market principles.
Ng, who declined to give his full name, first visited the tailors’ located in a walk-up in Tsim Sha Tsui last December, when he was appearing in court on a charge of unlawful assembly.
Before then, he had worn only oversized shirts, with sleeves tightly rolled up, and trousers belonging to his father. The new outfit did not cost him a penny.
Zuitable has for months been giving out free shirts and trousers for protesters due to appear in court. One of its two owners, who asked to be known only as Mark, told HKFP they wanted to give something back to the pro-democracy movement.
“Anyone can donate money, but is this the most effective way to help the movement going?” he said. He and his fellow owner Echo decided it was more meaningful to make use of their expertise in tailoring so that defendants can make a good impression on a magistrate or judge.
Ng first appeared in court in sneakers, T-shirt and shorts and his lawyer advised him to dress more smartly for subsequent hearings. He was a little hesitant: he had not needed to wear a formal shirt either at work or in school. “The only occasions that required more proper attire was when I pay a visit to the racecourse,” he chuckled.
Formal clothes “work magic on everyone,” Mark said. “During a fitting, many customers just stand up straight with a good posture in front of the mirror. They look more confident than before.”
He and his partner have supplied more than 100 shirts and trousers since last December and said they intend to keep doing so. Protesters in need of smartening up usually give the owners a heads up on Telegram and present their court summons as proof of need when picking up the clothes.
The shop is always prepared. “One day, a protester dropped by when we just opened for business [at around 1pm]. He was heading to the court for a hearing at 2:30pm,” Echo said.
“We didn’t know what to expect when we began the giveaway,” she said. “The first three cases were indeed heavy for us… My heart sank when I saw these youngsters coming in and what they were facing is unfathomable.”
The pair were inspired by a Facebook post in which a “parent” said a student protester with whom he was in touch had been thrown out by his family for his political views. The student was said to have been forced to wear a short-sleeve uniform for weeks into the winter season.
“Parents” are supporters of the movement who take care of financially challenged protesters, or those who have fallen out with their families. They offer various kinds of help which may include food vouchers, money, shelter, job opportunities, referrals to counsellors and legal services.
Some develop close ties to protesters even though in many cases they don’t meet in person or exchange real names.
Echo said she came from a “yellow” family and simply could not imagine a birth parent abandoning a child over political differences. Among those who sought help from Zuitable, most come alone, some with their protest “parents” and just a few with their real family.
“These kids… they need an emotional relief especially when many of the doors behind them were closed,” Mark said.
Clothing is a form of self-expression and, according to him, a hook to strike up a conversation with protesters who feel insecure about opening up to strangers.
“We sometimes had discussions about styles and how to pair pants and shirts… At least their time in this shop was a temporary escape, I hope,” said Mark.
On the day HKFP visited Zuitable, two people who identified themselves as Albert and Gina were sourcing clothes for their friend Tony. They refused to disclose details about the case Tony was involved in but the protester in his early 20s had been detained for months since his arrest.
At both court appearances since then he had appeared wearing a cream-coloured top distributed at the police station.
“He did not have time to go home and get changed… the clothes he was wearing at the time of his arrest were submitted to the court as evidence,” Gina told HKFP.
His friends have told Tony he will be better-dressed when he appears for another hearing this month, even though they are unsure of his sizes.
“He never owned any shirt so there isn’t any reference,” Albert said, adding that his parents did not know much about buying a formal shirt – which in any case they could ill-afford.
Hong Kong police have arrested more than 10,000 people since the protests began in summer 2019. So far more than 2,200 have been brought to court on a variety of charges including rioting, unlawful assembly and possession of offensive weapons.
The courts have been overwhelmed, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. The next hearing in Ng’s case is not scheduled until late February 2021.
Ng has become good friends with Mark and Echo since his first visit to Zuitable. “What they have done may seem little. But it is the sum of these little contributions by strangers that keep me from feeling abandoned.”