MADNESS, the fashion line created and managed by Hong Kong actor and entrepreneur Shawn Yue (余文乐 Yú Wénlè), has removed a sweater from store shelves and from its website following complaints about the garment’s design. The offense was caused by images featuring hand signals used by Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators.
Part of the brand’s Spring/Summer 2020 line, the sweater included an illustration of two Chinese hand gestures signifying the numbers one and five in the back, a detail widely denounced on Chinese social media as a supportive message for anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
In the eyes of critics, the design was a reference to “Five Demands, Not One Less,” a key slogan chanted by protesters who demonstrated for months on end in Hong Kong last year. The saying refers to a set of political demands by them, including democratic reforms and an independent inquiry into local police behavior.
Shawn Yue is a 38-year-old Hong Kong–born celebrity who launched his entertainment career as an actor in his early twenties. Aside from acting, Yue has also dabbled in music and modeling. In 2014, he made his entry into the fashion world by creating the streetwear label MADNESS.
After the criticism of the design spread quickly on Chinese social media, Yue released a statement, saying that he was “profoundly sorry” for not paying enough attention to details in the design process. “I sincerely apologize for the misunderstanding caused by our negligence,” Yue wrote on Weibo on behalf of his design team. The star also fervently denied rumors stating that he aligned himself with the Hong Kong protesters. “I am aware of the resurgence of rumors claiming that I am a Hong Kong separatist in the wake of this incident. It’s a matter of fact that Hong Kong has returned to China,” he said.
Yue’s statement, however, was deemed a backhand non-apology by many. Upset observers were quick to point out that Yue didn’t actually clarify his political position in regard to Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China, making the post seem disingenuous and misleading. “You could have made it clearer if you wanted to. Instead of citing it as a fact, you could have said that Hong Kong belongs to China. You think we from the mainland are too dumb to notice that?” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese).
The “Gotcha!” vibe was strong on Weibo, where Yue became a trending topic, with many users reacting to Yue’s statement with skepticism, alluding to the actor’s history of controversies connected to China’s territorial claims. In 2018, MADNESS came under fire after listing Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate countries on its website. In response, Yue issued an apology, saying that he was sorry for the “big mistake” and “misunderstanding” it might have caused. Yue also vowed to oversee his brand more closely, but many onlookers said that this week showed that the actor had broken his promises by releasing the offensive sweater design.