The Epicenter for the Hong Kong Protests May Just Be a McDonald’s

Oct 08, 2014 at 10:16 AM ET

In Bejing, it was Tiananmen Square. In Ferguson, it was West Flourissant Avenue. In Hong Kong, it’s Harcourt Road.

But it’s also McDonald’s. Nestled under a footbridge slung with pro-democracy banners in the city’s financial district, the roughly 500-square-foot outpost of the Golden Arches has become the unlikely hub of the protests that are now into their second week. Thanks to its proximity to the protest site, cheap food, free Wi-Fi and AC, the restaurant has drawn an energetic crowd second only in size to the protests themselves.

“Almost all my friends here are buying from McDonald’s,” said Lam Woon-yin, a student at Hong Kong’s Shue Yan University. “We have food supplies such as crackers and cookies, but we spend our own money to buy from there because we want to reserve the donated food for those who really need them. We are going to be here for the long haul.”

This week, the protest crowds have thinned significantly, from tens of thousands to hundreds, as most schools reopened for classes. On Tuesday, students agreed to talk with government this Friday, but vowed to carry on with protests if there are no substantial breakthroughs on the city’s political reform. The protests were triggered by China’s plan to vet all the candidates for Chief Executive, the top political job in the city.

But even as the protests waned, the lines at McDonald’s for cheeseburgers, Cokes and fries continued to snake out the door, making it one of the few businesses profiting from the protests.

For many protesters, the fast-food outlet has been a place to take shelter from scorching sun and torrential rain (not to mention fear of a government crackdown), and to bat around strategies and possible outcomes of the deadlock between government and protests. The shop ran out of burgers and McNuggets the day after the protests started, “due to disruption of food ingredient supply,” with the restaurant resuming business the next day.

Many other stores and hotels in the area, meanwhile, are either shuttering early or closed altogether. According to estimates by Australia New Zealand Banking Group, the protests had cost the city’s retailers $283.62 million, 6% of the retail sales in October.

“Their [McDonald’s] business is very good, but not for us,” said a restaurant supervisor at the Spaghetti House, an Italian food restaurant next door to the McDonald’s. “Probably it’s because our food is more expensive.”

The price may be right, but there are limits to the protesters’ loyalty to McDonald’s. Asked if she would be happy to dine out more often at the restaurant outside of protests, Yu Foen-ki, a Chinese major at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, giggled and replied: “Let’s say, if my friend ever tries to throw me a birthday party at McDonald’s, he won’t be my friend any more.”