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Hong Kong customs raids pro-democracy retail chain, sparking sympathy

Long queues outside AbouThai after Customs raid. Image from the Stand News. Use with permission.

Hong Kong customs deployed around 100 officers to raid and seize goods from retail chain, AbouThai, on 8 of April, citing a violation of the Consumer Goods Safety Ordinance for inadequate labelling on 14 types of products.

AbouThai is owned by Mike Lam, a pro-democracy businessman who started his retail business in 2015. He was fired by the Hong Kong customs after he appeared on TV in a protest against mainland Chinese parallel traders who took advantage of multiple visas to import goods from Hong Kong without paying tax. He was 26-year-old when he lost his job and his Thai wife had just arrived in Hong Kong with their three month old daughter.

To support the family’s living, he borrowed HK$100,000 (approximately US$14,000) from a bank and opened a 60 square-feet store in a grassroots district, selling Thai groceries. Currently, the retail chain has 26 stores all across Hong Kong.

Lam took part in the pro-democracy primaries in July 2020 and became one of the 47 activists arrested on charge with “conspiracy to subvert the state power” under the National Security Law.

The custom officers stormed AbouThai’s warehouse and its 26 stores, confiscating goods worth more than a million Hong Kong dollar due to the absence of Chinese labels for 14 types of products. A 33-year-old manager was arrested during the raid.

The retail chain apologized in a statement on its Facebook page for its negligence and pointed out that in usual practice, the customs would just issue warnings or prosecution letters. The city-wide raid, the statement said, was out of the ordinary:

面對這樣極端的檢控程序,可能,
就是因為阿布泰國生活百貨自創立以來,
一直都披上了色彩,但現實在這香港,誰會沒有色彩?色彩本就是一個多元文化應有的元素,香港作為中西匯集的國際都會,一直吸引世界各地的投資者。但現在面對著不停的打壓,阿布泰在此委曲但求全,我們只希望繼續服務香港人

[…]such extreme prosecution practice, perhaps is because since its establishment, AbouThai has been identified with certain colours. But who doesn’t have colour in Hong Kong? Hong Kong is a metropolitan with eastern and western culture, colours represent a diverse culture and this makes Hong Kong attractive for investors from around the world. In face of repression, AbouThai will survive humbly. All we want is to continue serving Hongkongers […]

AbouThai is a famous pro-democracy “yellow” shop of the so-called “yellow economic circle” – an initiative to provide mutual support and express solidarity among pro-democracy citizens. A number of yellow shops showed their support by offering discounts to customers who bought from AbouThai in the coming few days.

In a press statement released on April 9, the customs denied its action as “repression”, claiming that the city-wide operation was taken after officers received complaints and tested some products.

Last year, the Hong Kong Customs also crack downed on the sale of “not made in China” masks under the allegation of breaching trade description law. A core member of the now dissolved opposition party, Demosisto, was arrested during the raid.

Independent journalist Kris Cheng described the current city-wide operations as a “media show”:

The losses brought to the retail chain was huge as the raid took place just one day before the store’s annual “Songkran Festival” sale.

In response to the raid, pro-democracy Hongkongers rushed to buy from the store. Alex Lam, reporter from Apple Daily News described the collective act as taking vote:

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