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Songs of freedom in Hong Kong

Protesters gather near Hong Kong's Legislative Council Complex singing encouraging songs to support the movement and mass rally. Photo: Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images - Credit: LightRocket via Getty Images

In recent years the city’s creativity has been stifled and its musical energies diverted into protest, says SOPHIA DEBOICK.

Hong Kong is an economic powerhouse, global port, and one of the most densely populated places in the world. Smaller than London, this special administrative region of China on a city scale is almost a country unto itself, its 150 years of history as a British colony and geographical location in the heart of the Far East meaning it is where east and west have met.

With fewer billionaires than only New York and the most skyscrapers in the world, Hong Kong is a sci fi landscape brought to life. But the city’s wealth made flesh in steel and glass belies the deep wealth inequality in Hong Kong, and as forests of umbrellas have been held aloft in streets exploding in clouds of tear gas the city has become synonymous with political discontent.

The sentimental easy listening of Cantopop has been an unlikely narrator of Hong Kong’s changing fortunes, but the city is so intimately connected with this genre that it is hard to imagine things being otherwise.

Cantopop has been definitive of Hong Kong’s popular culture, its legions of idols also being the stars of the city’s once-massive film and TV industry and staples of its gossip mags. Cantopop was born in this city in the 1970s before spreading throughout the region, finding fans from Malaysia to Japan.

While Cantonese opera – an art form which incorporates exquisite costuming, martial arts, acting and singing – had already established a tradition with Cantonese lyrics and a strong regional identity in Hong Kong which Cantopop built upon, it would not be a native of Hong Kong but a Chinese refugee who would pioneer the genre.

Sam Hui was born in Guangzhou, China, in the midst of the Chinese Civil War, and arrived in Hong Kong as a two-year-old in 1950. Two years later, Pathé’s Far East operation fled communist controlled Shanghai for the city and the beginnings of a Hong Kong record industry could be glimpsed.

On the edge of his teens as the 1960s dawned, Hui got signed to the local Diamond label and rode the ‘Beat wave’ that followed the appearance of the Beatles at the Princess Theatre in the Kowloon part of Hong Kong in June 1964. Hui’s band The Lotus were virtually a Fab Four tribute act, complete with English lyrics and mop top haircuts.

But, crucially, The Lotus sang in Cantonese as well as English. The marriage of Cantonese lyrics and the Western pop-rock idiom was a recipe that would thrive in this enclave while, just over the border in mainland China, the Cultural Revolution raged and western pop was branded ‘pornographic’.

In the early 1970s, at the time when his friend Bruce Lee was bringing an international spotlight to the Hong Kong film industry, Hui, along with his brother Michael, began fronting their Hui Brothers Show, and Sam’s first big Cantonese hit, Eiffel Tower Above the Clouds (1972), was written for it. Along with another brother, Ricky, the Huis then moved into film themselves, and Sam’s songs for films like the detective comedy The Private Eyes (1976) became major hits. Cantopop theme tunes were established as a staple feature of Hong Kong-made TV – particularly its legendary soaps – and film.

The Private Eyes film dealt with the idiosyncrasies of Hong Kong society and this theme became a common motif for Cantopop lyrics, meaning the genre easily turned to dealing with the issue of the end of the United Kingdom’s 99-year lease on the colony in 1997 after the handover to China was agreed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984.

Pop takes on the handover ranged from the earnest to the nonchalant. While essential four-piece of the ‘band fever’ wave of Cantopop of the 1980s and 1990s, Beyond, saw their overwrought tribute to Nelson Mandela The Glorious Years (1990) adopted as a pro-democracy anthem, Sam Hui’s Could Not Care Less About 1997 of the same year dismissed the controversy, even as a mass exodus of Hongkongers in anticipation of the handover, and further stoked by the Tiananmen Square massacre, changed the city for good.

In the 2014 Umbrella Revolution Cantopop was once again used as a vehicle to express the feelings of the populace. Below the Lion Rock (1979) – the sentimental theme tune of the long-running Hong Kong-set soap whose title referenced the mountain above Kowloon – had been a runaway hit for Roman
Tam, Hui’s Chinese-born contemporary and one of the great Cantopop
superstars. Already considered an unofficial anthem of Hong Kong, the song was adopted by the 2014 protestors with enthusiasm.

The piano ballad Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies (1993) by the much-loved Beyond already had an inherent poignancy since the band’s singer Wong Ka Kui died in an on-stage accident shortly after its release. Its declarations of freedom – ‘Still I am free / Still I am independent / Forever loudly singing my song’ – made it a natural choice for the protests over 20 years after it first appeared.

While the umbrella army also sang a range of Western songs, reflecting the city’s internationalism – Lennon’s Imagine, Do You Hear the People Sing? from Les Misérables, Rhianna’s Umbrella (2007) and the contemporary hymn Sing Hallelujah to the Lord (symbolic of the role of Hong Kong’s Christian minority in the resistance to China) – it was Cantopop that came up with an original anthem for the protests in 2014.

Raise the Umbrellas opened with mournful whistling, seemingly inspired by the Scorpions’ Wind of Change, and was written by Cantopop composer Lo Hiu-Pan and Lin Xi, who has written for a host of Hong Kong stars from Faye Wong to Leslie Cheung. Recorded by Hong Kong-born singer-turned-activist Denise Ho, who was arrested during the protests and whose music has been banned in mainland China, this was the song of Hong Kong’s 2014.

But as demonstrations against the extradition bill began last year, a new anthem emerged – Glory to Hong Kong. Appearing online in August 2019 and written by an anonymous composer, its lyrics were agreed in an appropriately democratic way through discussion between Hong Kong netizens.

Based on God Save the Queen, it has a militaristic solemnity missing from the Cantopop melodrama of Raise the Umbrellas, a mark of how the political situation has become so much graver since 2014.

Last year also brought a slew of new songs directly referencing the protests. Comedian Jan Lamb, known for his parody songs, released Add Oil, reflecting the protest slogan ‘gaa yau’ (‘keep it going’). Hip hop meets nu metal act of 20 years’ standing LMF (Lazy Mutha F***a) poured ire on the police on their 2019. Hardcore band Rokkasen’s Step Back to the Almond Blossom was a howl of rage, with shouted vocals and death metal guitars, and both the metalcore Parallel Horizons’ Optophobia and extreme metal band Human Betrayer’s Dark Age were similar aural assaults which captured the heightening of tensions.

Despite the rise of new stars in the 1990s and since, notably the ‘Four Heavenly Kings’ – heartthrobs Jacky Cheung, Aaron Kwok, Andy Lau and Leon Lai – since the Chinese takeover Hong Kong’s stock as a pop culture powerhouse has taken a serious tumble.

Talent has poured out of the region, the authorities have suppressed Cantonese in favour of Mandarin, including in pop music, and K-Pop and Mandopop have taken over where Cantopop was once all-powerful.

With the passing of the Hong Kong national security law in June, pro-democracy activists fear the city’s society will be pulled apart by greater integration into the Chinese state. But the diversity of music produced just last year by this ‘revolution against tyranny’, as Human Betrayer have put it, shows that Hong Kong’s unique and diverse culture cannot be simply erased.

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