A Song for Hong Kong

A brief history of Hong Kong's protest music – 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.


Victor Hugo in China and Hong Kong

How China’s leadership and Hong Kong’s protesters have both embraced Hugo’s words – Amy Hawkins and Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Despite worldwide popularity, the 19th century French author Victor Hugo remains a mystery. His novels and the films they inspired are beloved from Hiroshima to Hanoi. When South Korean demonstrators toppled a corrupt president several years ago, one song their marches featured was “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables. In 2019, this anthem was among the rallying cries of Hong Kong activists. Meanwhile on the Chinese mainland, Beijing theatregoers flocked to a dramatization of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Shanghai art lovers took in a show dedicated to his “legendary life.”

Hugo’s current prominence across the People’s Republic of China is particularly intriguing. How can a writer linked to a song that has been key to anti-Beijing struggles in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement – one removed from Chinese music-streaming platforms – simultaneously be celebrated in China’s capital, where his fans include Xi Jinping himself? The answer lies in the multifaceted writings of Hugo, spread by globalization, relaying the struggle taking place in China and Hong Kong about what it means today to be both Chinese and a citizen of the world.


Waiting for Mulan

Reflecting on the original legend before the upcoming Disney movie – Anne Zlatow

Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan is off to a rough start, and it hasn’t even hit theaters yet. Directed by Niki Caro, the film was initially set to be released in 2018, following the anniversary of the 1998 animated original. Its world premiere has since been postponed three times, the second time just over two weeks before its release date. Ironically, the greatest challenge to the film’s release has been the pandemic that spread from the same city as the birthplace of Mulan’s star actress, Crystal Liu Yifei. As we look toward the current release date of August 21, it seems that as with many other recent Disney remakes, the treasured predecessor proves tough to beat – this time due to social and political influences beyond the screen. And while the remake’s stunning visuals will likely satisfy most viewers, supporters of Hong Kong’s protests against Beijing last year are already less inclined to give the film a chance.

During the 2019 protests, Crystal Liu Yifei – a Chinese national and patriot – was vocal about throwing support behind the Hong Kong police. This created a backlash from Hong Kongers against the film, and circulation of propaganda using her image (see right). Although Liu was chosen for the title role with consideration for her martial arts acting experience in Chinese films, her views of China and its politics have made her a polarizing figure. Along with her fighting and acrobatic skills, Liu brings a great deal of contemporary Chinese patriotism to the legend of Mulan – adding political complexity to a legend twisted and stretched into many forms for over a thousand years.


Memory in the Year of Covid

Artist Zhang Xiaogang’s new painting in response to the pandemic – Jonathan Fineberg

Zhang Xiaogang, born in China in 1958, grew up during the Cultural Revolution and was among the first generation of artists to emerge from the newly reopened art schools after the death of Mao. He is today revered in China, and recognized internationally as one of China’s leading artists. He shows with Pace Gallery worldwide, but he lives and works in Beijing.

In late February, Zhang emailed me to say that he and his wife Jiajia “have been self-isolated at home for a month … during this special period. China is experiencing a double disaster – the challenge of disease and humanity.” Six weeks later (in April), he sent me a photo of a new self-portrait. In it, he sits on a brown sofa, eyes closed in contemplation, with a bell jar over his head. It is a poetic and poignant image that goes straight to my own sense of living in this moment of global infection. I don’t speak Chinese and Zhang doesn’t speak English. But this painting articulates a complicated set of feelings which we all understand.


Mr. Lovecraft Goes to China

Nick Stember delves into H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy, and a new Chinese collection inspired by it

Long a loomingly tenebrous presence in American pop culture, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the disturbing specter of H.P. Lovecraft slithered into Chinese. While the definitive history of Lovecraftian sino-fic remains to be written, Camphor Press’ new collection of Chinese short stories inspired by Lovecraft, The Flock of Ba-Hui and Other Stories, may well be the first to survived the journey into English, thanks to translators Arthur Meursault and Akira.

Although Lovecraft’s work had found its way into Chinese as early as 2005 with a translation of August Derleth’s classic 1969 collection Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (credited to Hu Jianhong and Yu Yunling, published by Harbin Press under the title Myths of Lovecraft: Return of the Evil Gods), this particular iteration would seem to trace it’s eldritch origins back to late 2007, in the heady days before the bacchanal of the Beijing Olympics. On (one would imagine) a dark and stormy night of December 5, 2007, a subforum dedicated to the bestselling tabletop roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu (CoC) was launched on The Ring of Wonder (TROW), an online community for Chinese (and Chinese-speaking) fans of fantasy gaming, roleplaying and fiction.