Dispatches

Singing for Hong Kong6 min read

Three protests, three tunes – Alec Ash

Editor’s note: In commemoration both of the July 1 holiday which marks the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (and the end of Hong Kong as a British colony), and of the protests that define this holiday each year, we bring you a week of stories about the city.
A sign “seeking genuine universal suffrage” at a July 1 protest in Hong Kong

In October 2014 I travelled to Hong Kong for a friend’s wedding. I had booked my flight the year before, and went straight to St. John’s Cathedral from the airport. But instead of taking a cab down Connaught Road – Hong Kong Island’s central thoroughfare, usually choked with traffic – I walked down the empty multi-lane expressway it had become. Metal barricades were strewn across the tarmac, some knocked over. Impromptu stalls by the roadside were handing out free bottles of water and biscuits. A scattering of people were sitting cross-legged under the shade of overpasses, many of them on picnic blankets. But for the incongruous setting of an abandoned highway, the scene had the air of a not very successful county fair.

Later, after dusk had fallen and vows had been made, I slipped out of the wedding reception in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club and returned with a couple of friends to the blocked-off stretch of motorway. In the interim, crowds had gathered in the tens of thousands. Now the way was packed, with only elbow room to squeeze past the miles of protestors marching for democracy.

The Occupy Hong Kong protests, or the Umbrella Movement as they came to be collectively known, shook the city for three months in late 2014. Sparked by Beijing’s reneging on a promised change of voting rules that would have marked progress towards meaningful suffrage, demonstrators first gathered to occupy the streets on September 26, peaking at over 100,000 participants by conversative estimates. Political activism has been a regular feature of life in Hong Kong for years, with annual June Fourth vigils and a massive demonstration in 2003 against a proposed security law, what would have been Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. But these were the first and largest of their kind to directly challenge Beijing, and call for the resignation of Hong Kong’s unpopular leader, then Chief Executive Officer CY Leung, who left office in 2017.

In Hong Kong, every fresh demonstration has its soundtrack”

The failed county fair had turned into a carnival that first Saturday night of October. Banners hung from the overpasses, political slogans next to John Lennon quotes. One wall was covered with sticky notes featuring messages of support in colorful solidary. A stray Vaclav Havel quote was scratched onto brickwork. And together with the throng, we waved the flashlight function of our iPhones like lighters at Glastonbury, to the tune of ‘Under a Vast Sky’ by Beyond, the unofficial anthem of the protests. “Forgive my longing for freedom,” the lyrics go, “as I fear to stumble someday. Anyone can give up dreams, as I am clinging to my own.”

Song has long been associated with protest, from Billie Holiday’s 1939 ‘Strange Fruit’ with its haunting imagery of lynching, to Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ in 1963, at the height of the Cold War. In Hong Kong, various musicians have taken up the mantle, especially Denise Ho, who with other Cantopop stars performed ‘Raise the Umbrella,’ another anthem of the 2014 protests. Now it seems that every fresh demonstration has its soundtrack.

Almost three years after that autumn, on July 1, 2017, I was back in Hong Kong and at another protest march, this time to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Once again, Hong Kongers took to the streets to register their disaffection, walking from the green of Victoria Park to the grey of the government offices in Admiralty. Today was also the change of the guard: the new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, had just been sworn in. The signs now called for CY Leung to go to prison, and for some the target was higher still. One risky cardboard cut-out depicted Xi Jinping clutching a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the 2014 movement. Again, it was not specific demands at the foreground, but a general malaise.

Here too there was a refrain, heard on multiple street corners along the march, that soundtracked the protests: ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?,’ the famous Les Miserables ditty, its lyrics altered to reflect the mood. “The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of Hong Kong,” they sang, not those of France. We can only pray the sentiment never proves true, but the passion was palpable. “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 top comment on the Youtube clip of the song is still “Freedom, justice and democracy for the brave people of Hong Kong.”

Xi comes to join the protest

Other demonstrations, and other songs, also dotted the city. Some were pro-Beijing: a gaggle of mainland patriots carrying the PRC flag who clashed with pro-democracy protesters holding signs for imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, whose late-term cancer would kill him days later. One fringe group waved the Union Jack instead, blaring ‘God Save the Queen’ out of a boombox and calling for re-unification with the UK. That 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 the British – who did precious little too late to ensure democracy there – to return.

Now, another two years on, song has returned to the streets of Hong Kong. Marches against a loosely-worded law that could allow for extradition to China of political dissidents reached more than a million participants, according to organizers, on June ninth and 16th. The anthem of choice this time around was ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,’ a simple Christian song of praise that both emphasized the peaceful nature of the demonstrations (dubbed “riots” by the authorities) and arguably offered some protection for religious expression. It was heard everywhere, to the point that protesters were threatening to sing it again if police got trigger happy on the tear gas. Their protest was a success, at least for now: the Legislative Council has suspended deliberation on the bill, and as of publication has not announced when they will take it up again.

Today, another march will stall the heart of Hong Kong, as is tradition every July 1. The city is more polarized than ever, as politics splits residents apart, pitting those who flip the bird against those who don’t want to rock the boat. The future of the city’s freedoms is deeply uncertain, even more so for the restrictions on media and education that are sure to trickle down from the top (and the north) in the wake of these youthful protests. But whatever the situation, the people will still be there, singing for Hong Kong. ∎

A version of this article first appeared on the LARB China Blog in July 2017. All photos by the author.

Alec Ash

Alec Ash is a writer and editor in Beijing. He is the author of Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China (Picador, 2016), literary nonfiction about China's young generation, and Managing Editor of the China Channel.