Do You Hear the People Sing? A Summer of Protest Music in Hong Kong
by Ho Chak Law
On 9 June 2019, around a million Hongkongers marched in protest against an extradition bill proposed by their Special Administration Region (SAR) government. Under this bill, residents and visitors in Hong Kong risked being sent for trial under the jurisdiction of mainland China, thus jeopardising the “executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication” guaranteed in Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
Since then, there have been numerous confrontations between protesters and 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 further exposed social and political problems. A heightened sense of social and political consciousness has prevailed in the city 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 emphasised their identity as Hongkongers by singing a number of songs on the theme of freedom during rallies and demonstrations. “Boundless Oceans Vast Skies”, by Beyond—arguably the most influential rock band in the history of Cantopop—was the unofficial anthem, and had an earlier history as a protest song. A Cantonese version of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables was created and circulated by means of an online video clip, MP3 file, and chord chart; it paid tribute to Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a civil disobedience campaign that paved the way for the Umbrella Movement.
In the anti-extradition bill movement last summer, protesters used music to oppose an anticipated tightening grip on the kinds of freedom guaranteed by the Basic Law. They explored the potential of treating music as more than just a celebration of liberal values and cultural uniqueness, evidenced by how they used “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and the hymn “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” on different occasions.
“DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING?”
On June 15, six days after the million-person march, and three days after clashes between protesters and police outside the Legislative Council, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced a pause in the passage of the extradition bill. The announcement had little effect; around two million people joined a protest march the next day, during which “Do You Hear the People Sing?” emerged in its English version as a protest song. Whether it was deliberate or not, they chose not to sing the Cantonese version used in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Instead, they used the 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 on June 28 and 29. This time, protesters reiterated their demand for a full withdrawal of the extradition bill, and also reignited their quest for universal suffrage. They chanted slogans before singing both the English and Cantonese versions of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
The English version was heard again on July 24 at Hong Kong Stadium in the 21st minute of the friendly match between Manchester City and Kitchee. Some Hong Kong football fans sang the song inside and outside the stadium, condemning the mob attack that took place at Yuen Long MTR station three days earlier. The seemingly organised assault, injuring protesters and passers-by, was allegedly committed by members of local triad groups 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 and a vocal proponent of independence for Catalonia, was asked during the post-match press conference to comment on 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.”
“Do You Hear the People Sing?” was notably audible during the sit-in at Hong Kong International Airport between August 9 and 11, when protesters presumably capitalised on the song’s global reach, so as to appeal to visitors for support and solidarity in the cause of freedom and democracy.
“SING HALLELUJAH TO THE LORD”
“Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” became 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 filing into the public area near the East Wing Forecourt of the Central Government Offices (aka Civic Square, a name coined during the protests against the SAR government’s proposal of moral and national education curriculum in early September 2012).
Since then, protesters have used the simple lyrics and melodies written by Linda Stassen-Benjamin in 1974 to calming effect, to diffuse tensions with the police, or 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 purports to be a devout 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 sympathisers 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, a precursor to LIHKG, and Headliner, a longstanding satirical news programme on Radio Television Hong Kong known for its ironic pairing of news clips and popular songs.
These reworkings usually set new lyrics to pre-existing recorded tunes so as to mock pro-establishment figures, government officials, or police spokespeople. In one instance, the lyrics of “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” were 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 as such requires familiarity with Cantonese pop songs and colloquial expressions, tone-melody mapping abilities, and a deep understanding of current affairs and popular culture in Hong Kong.
“Investiture of the Communist Courtiers”, for example, parodies the theme song of Gods of Honour, a gods-and-demons historical drama series first aired in Hong Kong in 2001. On July 2, LIHKG members started posting newly written lyrics line by line, channelling their anger at pro-establishment lawmakers without mentioning the original version. They assumed readers would recognise the song based on the meter, tone pattern, and rhyming scheme. Over two days, contributors evolved the lyrics with various techniques of word play and targets of ridicule. The new song title itself is somewhat sarcastic, 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 this parody song. 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 disillusionment following the June 9 protest march, the police’s verbal aggression against a Commercial Radio Hong Kong reporter on June 12, 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 accused of supporting the attack, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of “leading a mass of evils to harm the people” inscribed on the LIHKG post that initiated the creative process.
“GLORY TO HONG KONG”
On August 26, netizen “thomas dgx yhl” posted on LIHKG links to YouTube and SoundCloud demos of a new composition called “Glory to Hong Kong”, seeking volunteers to help polish the lyrics and creating a choral version of this self-proclaimed anthem-cum-war song. He explained in the initial post the rationale behind his song composition. He annotated the four (AABA) sections of lyrics with a narrative that emphasises the significance of courage and wisdom in reviving the homeland with justice and freedom. He also quoted a passage from a piece of rhymed prose by Tang poet Li Bai and another from an essay by modern writer Lu Xun as inspiration. To some people’s surprise, the initial post was extremely well received, attracting more than 2,300 responses prior to the final version of the song being released as an audio track and a music video with English subtitles on another LIHKG post. The song has become the soundtrack to civil disobedience in Hong Kong since then, superseding both “Do You Hear the People Sing” and “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”. It has drawn attention from news media in countries worldwide, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Singapore and Japan. It has also aroused hostility from some government supporters who allege the song evokes separatist sentiment.
Until the Secretary for Education recently declared a ban on playing, singing, or broadcasting “Glory to Hong Kong” in schools, the song empowered protesters. A sardonic cover version featuring Junius Ho on top of paraphrasing the instrumental introduction of Beyond’s “(I) Really Love You” was more an object of ridicule than a source of anger or frustration among protesters, for instance. Although the ban has undoubtedly discouraged singing the song in public, it has pushed protesters to exercise their creativity by delving into the arts of resistance in response to domination.
SONGS OF GOVERNMENT SUPPORTERS
Standing against protesters, supporters of the SAR government have proclaimed themselves promoters of peace and social stability. In public assemblies organised by pro-establishment groups, they have performed songs that were once synonymous with social movements in Hong Kong during the 1980s and 1990s. “Below the Lion Rock”, the theme song to the celebrated 1979 Hong Kong television drama series of the same name, was adopted to highlight the so-called Hong Kong spirit. “Tomorrow Will Be Better”, a renowned Mandarin song inspired by the USA for Africa charity single “We Are the World” and originally written to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Retrocession Day in Taiwan in 1985, was rendered to boost police morale and express patriotic sentiment.
Of one mind in pursuit of our dream,—“Below the Lion Rock,” translation by Chris Yeung
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.
Some citizens and cultural critics have condemned these performances for political appropriation endorsing government officials and pro-establishment lawmakers. On the one hand, as early as in 2014, esteemed Cantopop lyricist Albert Leung claimed that “Below the Lion Rock” had become an emblem of social values endorsed by many in the older generation but disowned by younger people, noting that the SAR government had been blaming social and political problems on the lack of social unity as encapsulated in the song lyrics. On the other hand, 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 musical performances in public space was noteworthy in the recent social unrest in Hong Kong. The fight for freedom of expression and the maintenance of vitality in local culture are complicated by issues concerning the SAR government’s policies on new migrants from mainland China, its approaches to parallel trading activities carried out by travellers 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 showed 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.
Author’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published in the Folklife Magazine of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage on 18 September 2019. The piece was updated on 22 July 2020 for reprint in Hong Kong Protesting. Images in this piece are supplied by me.
Ho Chak Law received his PhD from University of Michigan, with his dissertation Cinematizing Chinese Opera, Performing Chinese Identities, 1945-1971. His publications have appeared or will appear in CHINOPERL: Journal of Chinese Oral and Performing Literature, Music and the Moving Image, The Drama Review, and International Journal of Asian Studies. His current research interests include music ecology and historiography, film music and sound, indigeneity and postcoloniality, cultural politics, and Sinophone transnationalism.