Pro-democracy retail chain Chickeeduck will leave the Hong Kong market in the second half of next year citing “disturbances from unknown evil forces,” the company announced on Thursday.

The brand started as a children’s clothing chain in 1990, expanded to adult wear and launched other lifestyle stores last year. The chain rose in popularity among the pro-democracy camp as its stores displayed artwork and products with protest messages.

Chickeeduck’s CEO Herbert Chow standing next to a statue of Lady Liberty. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Chickeeduck’s CEO Herbert Chow said that it was no longer “feasible” to continue the chain’s operations in Hong Kong due to disruptions in product supply, as well as difficulties in securing leases.

In June last year, Chickeeduck was told to remove a statue of pro-democracy Lady Liberty at a branch at D Park in Tsuen Wan. It later moved out of the store after failing to renew its lease.

57-year-old Chow said the company’s main supplier told him that they had “received terrible information” about Chow and his company after receiving a stack of “state media reports” on the CEO, and that they feared that Chickeeduck would be unable to pay them.

Chow said that, in order for his supplier to send products from Indonesia to Hong Kong, he had to pay in full “before the ship was even loaded.”

Some of Chickeeduck’s merchandise. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The retail chain had already attempted to alter its approach after finding it difficult to rent store spaces inside shopping malls, and started to rent street-front shops instead.

“In the beginning, we imagined there would only be a reshuffling… changing the distribution channel from inside shopping malls to on-street shops,” said Chow. “As it turned out, it was very different.”

“When you run a business which you have to rely on a third party to supply products to you, and you cannot be sure that the third party will have the guts to supply to you … then you have to think whether the business model is still feasible.”

A decision ‘for staff members’

Chow said that the brand’s departure from the Hong Kong market did not mean the company would shut down. He said that he would “take a rest” after an “orderly withdrawing” from Hong Kong, and that he had “no intention to leave” the city.

Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“This decision was not made for me, this decision was made for the company’s staff… considering the daily torture they endured,” said Chow. The shop received hundreds of nuisance calls per month during peak hours, he said, while some employees reported “being followed.”

Chickeeduck, at present, has has more than 40 staff, and the CEO said that none of his employees “jumped ship” after the announcement was made.

Herbert Chow. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“It’s not related to my personal safety,” Chow said. “I took this step not because I was worried that I might get arrested, I never thought that I had violated the law.”

The chain’s Tsuen Wan branch was cordoned off by national security police in May, and the CEO was questioned by officers. Chow said at that time that he was warned not to sell or display any products that violated the security law, but the authorities refused to tell him whether any of his products had in fact breached the law.

The national security law, enacted in Hong Kong in June last year, criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

Chickeeduck’s warehouse, and a Lady Liberty statue that was originally put in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“We will keep registering our trademark, and see what we can do in the future,” said Chow. “I’m still very young, I’m only 57, I plan to retire when I’m 77 years old. So there are still 20 years, I’ll have to think what I can do, I can’t be sitting around doing nothing.”

‘How can I shut up?’

Chickeeduck will close three shops after their leases expire next year. Chow said that he might turn the Tin Hau branch into a museum displaying statues and artwork, including one that was reported to the authorities this month.

Last week, a statue of the late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was removed from Chickeeduck’s Tin Hau branch after the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) accused the store of unlawfully occupying unleased land.

A statue of Liu Xiaobo (left) outside Chickeeduck’s Tin Hau branch, and a letter from four government departments (right) attached to the statue. Photo: Chickeeduck, via video screenshot.

Chow said that he “could not stand injustice,” and that his wife had told him to “tone [things} down.” The CEO said that he can stop getting involved in other areas, “but when it comes to Hong Kong, our home, how can [I] shut up?”

Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.