How Pop Music Fuels Hong Kong’s Protest Movement

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 10.15.14 in News

Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong have reached a boiling point in the past day, with local police saying they’ll investigate reports of excessive force and a prominent tycoon urging an end to the protests. The movement was set off on August 31 when Beijing declared it would screen candidates for the city’s highest office, which activists say violates Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” arrangement and goal of universal voting rights. Fascinatingly, an op-ed in this morning’s issue of The New York Times points out the links between the Hong Kong protests and popular music, both homegrown and imported.

After newspaper editorials dismissed the student activists as unsophisticated dreamers, the demonstrators replied by putting up a banner with lyrics from John Lennon‘s “Imagine”: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” As Hong Kong-based author Nury Vittachi notes in the Times column, that the words come from a “Western pop song” was particularly significant. “Hong Kong is an international city, and ever since the former British colony was swallowed up by China in 1997, its residents have expected to live by global, not Chinese standards,” Vittachi writes.

Sure enough, protesters have turned to local songs, too. “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies,” a 1993 song by Cantonese group Beyond, is the most commonly sung anthem of the movement, according to the Times op-ed.

Still, music from pop culture beyond China has played a major role, and it’s not just the Lennon quote. One favorite of demonstrators is Rihanna‘s 2007 smash “Umbrella,” according to the Times. Umbrellas, as a defense against pepper spray and tear gas, have become a symbol of the movement, which some have called the “Umbrella Revolution.”

Another song that has become a staple of the movement, sung in both English and Cantonese, is “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables.

The protesters’ version of the Les Mis call to revolution includes new Cantonese lyrics, by an unknown protester, which the Times op-ed translates as, “Hand in hand, we fight hard for the right to vote for our future/ Why is our dream still just a dream.” The song reportedly aired on local news on October 1, the holiday that marks the start of the People’s Republic of China, as the 2012 Hollywood movie version was being shown on the local HBO station. Though local performers initially resisted singing the song, in light of the professional risks involved, such well-known regional names as Denise Ho, Kay Tse and Anthony Wong have since appeared with the protesters.

Hear the people singing below.