On June 9, 2019, around a million Hong Kong civilians marched in protest against an extradition bill proposed by their Special Administration Region (SAR) government. Under this bill, residents and visitors in Hong Kong would be placed under the jurisdiction of mainland China, even though the constitutional Basic Law states that Hong Kong is authorized to “exercise a high degree of autonomy and enjoy executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication.”
Since then, there have been numerous confrontations between protesters and the police, in addition to rallies, demonstrations, and various forms of nonviolent resistance throughout the city. For almost three months, the SAR government’s indifference to protesters’ demand for a full withdrawal of the bill has further exposed social and political problems. A heightened sense of social and political consciousness prevails as a result.
Music undoubtedly plays a part in such a social life. Throughout history, around the world, people have deployed music for political expression. Here are a few snapshots of how music has played an active role in the current politics of Hong Kong.
The Umbrella Movement
In 2014, protesters in the Umbrella Movement called for universal suffrage. They empowered themselves and emphasized their identity as Hongkongers through singing a handful of songs on the theme of freedom during rallies and demonstrations. “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies” was the unofficial anthem that had an earlier history as a protest song and a classic by Beyond, arguably the most influential rock band in the history of Cantopop. A Cantonese version of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Misérables was created and circulated by means of an online video clip, MP3 file, and chord chart, paying tribute to Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a civil disobedience campaign that paved the way for the Umbrella Movement.
In the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement this summer, protestors use music to instead oppose an anticipated tightening grip on the kinds of freedom the Basic Law guarantees. They explore the potential to treat music as more than something for a mere celebration of liberal values and cultural uniqueness, as one could observe from how they have treated “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” on different occasions.
“Do You Hear the People Sing?”
Six days after the June 9 protest march, and three days after the violent clashes between protesters and the police at the Legislative Council Complex on June 12, Hong Kong SAR Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced a pause in the passage of the extradition bill. This announcement was far from effective; it stimulated around two million civilians to join the June 16 protest march, during which “Do You Hear the People Sing?” emerged in its English version as a protest song. Deliberately or not, they chose not to sing the Cantonese version that would recall the 2014 Umbrella Movement. They rather borrowed lyrics written by Herbert Kretzmer in 1985 to address the SAR government’s initial uncompromising response to the June 9 protest.
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!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!
On June 26, protesters held a rally calling on G20 members to raise concerns about Hong Kong during the summit in Osaka between June 28 and 29. This time, not only did protesters reiterate their demand for a full withdrawal of the extradition bill, but they also reignited their quest for universal suffrage. They shouted out slogans before singing both English and Cantonese versions of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
The English version was heard again during the twenty-first minute of the friendly match between Manchester City Football Club and Kitchee Sports Club on July 24. Some Hong Kong soccer fans sang the song together in and outside of Hong Kong Stadium, condemning a mob attack at the Yuen Long MTR station three days before. The seemingly organized assault, injuring protesters and passersby, was allegedly committed by members of local triads and some pro-establishment natives of old villages in Yuen Long. The police were arraigned for not responding to the attack.
Pep Guardiola, the manager of Manchester City FC and a vocal proponent of independence for Catalonia, was asked during the post-match conference about his thoughts on some people chanting “Free Hong Kong” during the match. He replied, “No discussion is the problem [between the protesters and the SAR government], so sometimes it is a shame that this kind of thing happens.”
The same song had another notable presence during the sit-in at the Hong Kong International Airport between August 9 and 11, when protesters presumably capitalized on the song’s global reach, such that they could appeal to visitors for support and solidarity in the cause of freedom and democracy.
“Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”
“Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”has become an acoustic signature of rallies and demonstrations in Hong Kong in a rather serendipitous way. On June 11, a group of people—presumably Christians—were singing the hymn while protesters were filling up the public area near the East Wing Forecourt of the Central Government Offices (aka Civic Square, a name created during the protests against the SAR government’s proposal of moral and national education curriculum in early September 2012).
Since then, thanks to the simple lyrics and melodies first created by Linda Stassen-Benjamin in 1974, protesters have used the hymn to create a calming effect or to diffuse tensions with the police. It has also been used by protesters to protect their peers from being charged with rioting. Some even consider the hymn an indirect critique of restrictions on religious practices in mainland China and a vehicle for reawakening the conscience of Carrie Lam, who has claimed herself as a devoted Catholic.
The Protest Parody Song
For many Hong Kong protesters, the Reddit-like online forum LIHKG is an important platform for brainstorming, decision-making, posting calls to action, and discussing tactics of resistance. Consequently, its “creativity board” turns into a venue for protesters and their sympathizers to create—collectively or individually—cover versions and other reworkings of Cantonese pop songs for social commentary or political satire. This practice derives chiefly from the still-active “music board” of HKGolden, the precursor to LIHKG, and Headliner, a longstanding Radio Television Hong Kong program of news satire known for its ironic pairing of news clips and popular songs.
These reworkings usually set new lyrics to preexisting recorded tunes so as to mock pro-establishment figures, government officials, or police spokespersons. In one case, the lyrics of “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” are set to the tune of a popular Mandarin version of Nenbutsu, referencing the vocal recitation of the Buddha Amitābha’s name. Creating an effective reworking requires familiarity with Cantonese pop songs and colloquial expressions, tone-melody mapping abilities, and a deep understanding of the current affairs and popular culture in Hong Kong.
“Investiture of the Communist Courtiers,” for example, parodies the theme song of Gods of Honor, a gods-and-demons historical drama series first aired in Hong Kong during summer in 2001. On July 2, LIHKG members started posting newly written lyrics line by line, channeling their anger at pro-establishment lawmakers, without mentioning the original version. They assumed that the reader would recognize the song based on the meter, tone pattern, and rhyme scheme. Over two days, contributors evolved the lyrics through various word play and targets of ridicule. The title itself is a bit of sarcasm, knowing that the Chinese word for “courtiers” has the same Cantonese pronunciation as the Chinese word for “gods,” while members of the Chinese Communist Party are supposed to be atheists.
A day later, netizen Sunny Lam released a music video for “Investiture of the Communist Courtiers.” In a style reminiscent of Headliner, the music video guides the viewer to relate the song lyrics to some notable recent incidents in Hong Kong: the suicides of three Hongkongers due to their disillusionment following the June 9 protest march, the police’s verbal aggression against a Commercial Radio Hong Kong reporter on June 12, the short speeches by Cantopop stars Alan Tam and Kenny Bee during the pro-police assembly on June 30, and the storming of the Legislative Council Complex on July 1.
This musical reworking drew further attention from protesters and LIHKG members after the Yuen Long mob attack on July 21. Junius Ho, a pro-establishment lawyer and lawmaker, was alleged to have supported the attack, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of “leading those evils to harm the people” inscribed on the LIHKG post that initiated the creative process.
Songs of Government Supporters
Standing against protesters, supporters of the SAR government have proclaimed themselves as promoters of peace and social stability. In public assemblies organized by pro-establishment unions, they have performed songs that were once iconic of social movements in Hong Kong during the 1980s and 1990s. “Below the Lion Rock,” a famous theme song written in 1979 for the Hong Kong television drama series of the same title, is adopted to highlight the so-called Hong Kong spirit. “Tomorrow Will Be Better,” a renowned Mandarin song inspired by “We Are the World” and originally written to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Retrocession Day in Taiwan in 1985, is rendered to cheer up the police and express patriotic sentiment.
Of one mind in pursuit of our dream,
All discord set aside,
With one heart on the same bright quest,
Fearless and valiant inside.
Hand in hand to the ends of the Earth,
Rough terrain no respite,
Side by side we overcome ills,
As the Hong Kong story we write.
—“Below the Lion Rock,” translation by Chris Yeung
Some civilians and cultural critics have condemned these performances for being political appropriation endorsed by government officials and pro-establishment lawmakers. On one hand, esteemed Cantopop lyricist Albert Leung claimed in 2014 that “Below the Lion Rock” had become an emblem of social values endorsed by many baby boomers but disowned by the younger generations, noting that the SAR government had been blaming those social and political problems on the lack of social unity as encapsulated in the song lyrics.
On the other hand, the Honorable Carrie Lam was recorded singing “Below the Lion Rock” with members of pro-establishment political parties on occasions ranging from fundraising events to policy consultation meetings.
Aside from the use of music for political expression, the reactivated debate on music performance in public space is noteworthy in the recent social unrest in Hong Kong. The fight for freedom of expression and the vitality of local culture is complicated by issues concerning the SAR government’s policies on new migrants from mainland China, its approaches to parallel trading activities committed by travelers from mainland China, and its intention to adopt Mandarin as the official language in all primary and secondary schools. In this regard, the July 6 demonstration in Tuen Mun Park has shown how protesters against the extradition bill are also keen to claim their cultural rights as Hongkongers.
Basically, there is an anxiety among many Hong Kong people that manifestations of the so-called “low culture” from mainland China would invade their local culture—not unlike mainland China’s laws with the extradition bill.
Ho Chak Law is a specialist in music of the Sinophone sphere. He recently received a doctoral degree in musicology from the University of Michigan and is currently a visiting lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University.