A Song for Hong Kong10 min read

A history of Hong Kong’s protests, in three songs – Alec Ash

Hong Kong has long been a city of song. In the 60s and 70s it was the music bars of Wan Chai and the neon-lit karaoke joints of Kowloon. In the 80s and 90s, Cantopop became central to the city’s cultural identity (as well being go-to KTV picks in mainland China, an important form of soft power). After the handover to China in 1997 Cantopop lost its mojo – supplanted by K-Pop – but over the last ten years a new musical form has come to Hong Kong: the protest song.

Song is often married to dissent, from Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939, with its haunting arboreal imagery of lynching, to Bob Dylan’s 1963 ‘Masters of War’ at the height of US-Soviet tensions. In Hong Kong, musicians took up the mantle in response to Beijing’s slow encroachments on their freedoms, from the protest pop of Denise Ho (subject of a New Yorker profile just last year) to the crowd-sourced anthem of last year’s protests (see my LARB piece following a frontline fighter). Now a new security law muscled in by Beijing has muzzled them. To mark the city’s silencing – and in hope that its voice will still be heard – here are personal vignettes of four periods of the city’s recent history, through the prism of three songs and a silent coda.

2014: Under A Vast Sky

In October 2014 I travelled to Hong Kong for a friend’s wedding. I had booked my flight over a year beforehand, and on a Saturday afternoon I went straight to St. John’s Cathedral from the airport. But instead of taking a cab down Connaught Road – a central thoroughfare usually choked with traffic – I walked down the empty multi-lane expressway, making record time. Metal barricades were strewn across the tarmac, next to impromptu stalls handing out bottles of water and biscuits. Banners hung from overpasses, political slogans next to John Lennon quotes. Walls were covered with sticky notes featuring messages of support in colorful solidary. A Vaclav Havel quote was scratched onto the cement. Scatterings of protestors sat cross-legged on picnic blankets, giving the scene an air of less political protest, more county fair.

A singalong to ‘Under a Vast Sky’ begins, October 4 2014

Occupy Hong Kong, or the Umbrella Movement as it came to be known, shook the city for three months in 2014, from late September to Christmas. Sparked by Beijing’s reneging on a promised change of voting rules that would have made progress towards meaningful suffrage, demonstrators gathered in numbers that peaked at over 100,000. Political activism had been a regular feature of life in Hong Kong for years, from annual June Fourth vigils to activism against proposed national education reform, and a mass demonstration in 2003 protesting a proposed security law (the dreaded Article 23, long before Beijing strongarmed their version through last month). But the Umbrella protests were the first movement to directly challenge Beijing, calling for the resignation of Hong Kong’s unpopular leader, then Chief Executive Officer CY Leung.

That night, after dusk had fallen and vows had been taken, I slipped out of the wedding reception in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club and returned to the blocked-off stretch of motorway. Now the way was packed, with only elbow room to squeeze past tens of thousands of protestors. A tune was struck up over the sound system, and with a cheer of recognition the throng sang along, waving the flashlight function of their iPhones like lighters at Glastonbury. The song was ‘Under A Vast Sky,’ a 1993 hit by Beyond which was heard and sung throughout the protests (even more so than ‘Raise the Umbrella’ by Denise Ho and other contemporary Cantopop stars, which was released later and became another unofficial anthem of the movement).

“Forgive my wild longing for freedom,” goes the chorus, “even as I fear I will stumble someday. Anyone can give up on dreams, but one day it will just be you and me.” The guitar lick soars as high as the lead vocals by Wong Ka Kui (who tragically died shortly after the song came out, after falling off the stage during a performance). It is perhaps curious, perhaps telling, that the most popular song during this early political demonstration was a romantic power-ballad. The anthems of Hong Kong’s protests became steadily more explicit as the years went on. Yet I will always associate their spirit with this tune, and its defiant heart yearning for individual love and freedoms in the face of greater powers that get in the way.

2017: Do You Hear the People Sing?

Three years later, on July 1 2017, I was back in Hong Kong on a visit that coincided with another protest march – this time to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China. Once again, Hong Kongers took to the streets to register their disaffection, marching a traditional protest route from Victoria Park to the government offices in Admiralty. Today was also a change of the political guard: CY Leung had left office, and the new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, had just been sworn in. The protest signs now called for CY Leung to go to jail, and for some marchers the target was higher still. One risky cardboard cut-out depicted Xi Jinping clutching a yellow umbrella, symbol of the 2014 movement. After starting out with specific, local targets, the protest movement was becoming more explicitly anti-CCP.

A sign “seeking genuine universal suffrage” on July 1 2017

Other protests also dotted the city. Some were pro-Beijing: a gaggle of mainland patriots carrying the PRC flag, clashing with pro-democracy protesters holding signs commemorating imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, whose late-term cancer would kill him just days later. Another fringe group waved the Union Jack, blaring ‘God Save the Queen’ out of a boombox and calling for re-unification with the UK. The day marked a decade after my first trip to Hong Kong, on the tenth anniversary of the handover, and I had not expected the mood to be so dejected ten years later that a minority would even wish for a return of the British – who did precious little too late to call for democracy there, after 150 years of suppressing it.

This year, it was another song that seemed ubiqiuitous throughout the march. Yet this new tune was a very old one: ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?,’ the famous Les Miserables ditty, its lyrics altered. “The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of Hong Kong,” groups belted out. “Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.” The song had been sung in 2014 (and was again in 2019, see below) yet was widespread by 2017. It is a curious twist that, as Amy Hawkins and Jeffrey Wasserstrom point out, Victor Hugo’s words have been embraced by both Hong Kong protestors and CCP loyalists including Xi Jinping himself. But that is the irony that the song choice made apparent: it was against a socialist regime that the common man in Hong Kong was protesting, using the banner-waving socialism of the French revolution as their anthem.

2019: Glory to Hong Kong

Another two years on, protest – and song – returned to Hong Kong. Marches against a loosely-worded law that could allow for extradition to China of political dissidents drew more than a million participants on June 9th, peaked violently in the fall, and continued right until the Covid outbreak at the beginning of this year. At first, before the tear-gas flew and the vandalism started, one of the most-heard songs on the street was ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,’ a Christian hymn that emphasized the peaceful nature of the demonstrations (already dubbed “riots” by authorities) and arguably offered protection for religious expression. It was heard everywhere, to the point that protesters threatened to sing it again if the police got too close.

Students marching on September 30 2019, while singing ‘Glory to Hong Kong’

As the demonstrations bloomed into full-on civil disobedience, however, a new tune came to define the 2019 protests (which are yet to receive a catchy name, although the umbrellas used to fend off tear-gas remained their symbol). ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ is a rousing anthem, composed by the anonymous ‘thomas dox yhl’ and with lyrics crowdsourced on the messaging platforms used to co-ordinate protests. By the zenith of the movement, crowds would spontaneously break out into renditions of the anthem, and by the chorus it felt like this was a new nation in the making.

“Arise! Ye who would not be slaves again / For Hong Kong, may Freedom reign.” The lyrics of the first verse, in official English translation, seem to both nod at Victor Hugo and thumb their nose at the PRC national anthem, ‘March of the Volunteers’ (“Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves! With our flesh and blood, let us build a new Great Wall!”). Another line seems almost redolent of imagery in the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ – “Stars may fade as darkness fills the air / Through the mist a solitary trumpet flares” – as if to curry favor with the nation most likely to help Hong Kong. Then comes the closer, breaking up 2019’s slogan (光復香港,時代革命) across two lines: “Break now the dawn, liberate our Hong Kong. In common breath: Revolution of our times.”

2020: [silence]

Fast forward to the present. The passing of a new security law in Hong Kong on June 30 – a birthday gift for the 23rd anniversary of the handover the following day – has left local democracy activists in fear of prison sentences that could be arbitrarily imposed by a deliberately vague law. Many have already fled, and a further brain drain and business retreat will surely follow. Given the wide scope of the law, that classifies as criminal anything conspiring to provoke “hatred” of the Chinese government, free expression is successfully stoppered. So too is the song that defined the city’s defiance. In schools, singing ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ is now banned, and the legality of its wider use is open to interpretation.

China promised 50 years to Hong Kong. It gave them 23. Yet what is to come remains uncertain. The music may have stopped, but Hong Kongers are still singing. ∎

Header: Crowds at Hong Kong’s Umbrella protests, 2014. Parts of this article first appeared on the LARB China Blog in 2017. All photos by the author.