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.

2020 China Books

2020 China Books (Part 3): Modern Chinese History

A third list of new China books on modern history – compiled by Brian Spivey

This is part three of our 2020 China Books series (read parts one and two), showcasing books about China’s past that came out, or are coming out, in 2020 – and giving their authors an opportunity to suggest why readers might be interested in their book in this current historic moment. The books in this third post cover an eclectic range of subjects related to China’s modern history. The Chinese Party-state features prominently, whether as marshal of nationalist narratives that seek to elide China’s linguistic diversity, as censor of information, as producer of data and statistics, as legatee of nationalist and revolutionary movements, as third pole in the Cold War, and as capitalist economic reformer. Understanding the many faces of the Party-state allows for a more nuanced understanding of China in the 20th century. Of course, the state is not the whole story: many of the books emphasize the history of non-state actors such as commercial artists, publishers, authors, and diasporic medical communities.  – Brian Spivey



Wishes from Hong Kong

A new poem by Anthony Tao

Editor’s note: On June 30, China passed a new security law in Hong Kong, just in time for the 23rd anniversary of the handover the following day. Various citizens and outside observers fear that this marks the end of Hong Kong’s special freedoms and status within China. Anthony Tao wrote the following poem in celebration and commiseration of a city he has grown to love.

I wish you could see it, the verticality,
pylons of glass steel and stone
rising to spike empyrean, straining
toward the welkin where sky and sea
flip, keelboat and junk yawing in clouds
while the waves reel and roll.


Barbarians at the Gate

The Khitans and their Empire

An episode of Barbarians at the Gate

As featured eagle-hunting in the banner image above, the Khitan were a proto-Mongol people from regions of present-day Mongolia and Northeast China, whose history stretches back to the 4th century. In 907 they founded the Liao Empire, one of the first expansive empires in China to establish their capital in the area around modern Beijing. Two centuries later, caught between a rising Chinese empire in the Song (960-1279) and a new power in the Northeast, the proto-Manchu Jurchen, the Liao Empire fell in 1125 and the Khitan were scattered once more across Asia. In this old episode of Barbarians at the Gate, Jeremiah Jenne and James Palmer discuss the history of the Khitans, their empire and their legacy – helped along by analogies to the Godfather trilogy and Game of Thrones:


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.