In the first few days of the pro-democracy protest here, haughty newspaper editorials branded the demonstrators as naïve dreamers. The students responded by daubing a quote from John Lennon’s “Imagine” over various parts of the main sit-in site in the Admiralty neighborhood: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
The line turned out to be prophetic: The protesters’ ranks soon swelled so much that journalists stopped trying to estimate the numbers. The choice of a Western pop song was also defining. 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. That goes for everything, including democracy.
These days the protesters are saying as much, and are rejecting the influence of Beijing over Hong Kong’s next election by invoking a combination of local Cantonese cultural references and global musical hits.
The song they most often sing is “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies,” a 1993 ballad by the local Cantonese group Beyond. “Forgive me for loving freedom all my life,” goes the band leader Wong Ka-Kui, who, like John Lennon, died before his time. On social media, a sugary 2007 song by an obscure group called the Wokstarz (disclosure: my daughter was a member) had 50,000 Facebook views in three days recently. It is known for celebrating a certain degree of freedom in Hong Kong: “It’s true we have no democracy / One day we’ll choose leaders / But we can say anything we like / Our free speech has freed us.”
In 1964, while China was preparing for the Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong was hosting the Beatles. Today, on the sidelines of the sit-ins, small groups of older people wave the Chinese red flag and sing the Chinese national anthem, with its archaic, ponderous opening: “Arise! All those who refuse to be slaves! Let our flesh and blood forge our new Great Wall!” The protesters bellow back with the stirring “Do You Hear the People Sing?” number from the blockbuster musical “Les Misérables,” hoping for a happier ending than in the original.
That song has been used at other demonstrations around the world, but only in Hong Kong is it performed in English and Cantonese. And the version in Cantonese — the dialect of Hong Kong and southern China, whose use Beijing has been working to limit in recent years — was rewritten around the dream of achieving democracy.
Sung by students barricaded in the center of a Chinese city, it gains poignancy from the memory of those other students who died in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and who are mourned publicly in Hong Kong every year, at a huge gathering in Victoria Park. The song’s Cantonese lyrics — by an anonymous protester — express the frustrations of an entire community: “Hand in hand, we fight hard for the right to vote for our future. Why is our dream still just a dream?”
As chance would have it, on Oct. 1st, the holiday that commemorates the birth of the People’s Republic of China, the song erupted on local news channels and live streams on the Web at the same time that the 2012 Hollywood movie of “Les Misérables” was broadcast on televisions tuned to the local affiliate of HBO. This Oct. 1 was also a day that brought particularly large anti-China crowds out in the streets.
At first, attempts by protest organizers to encourage famous artists to record “Do You Hear the People Sing?” were met by nervous refusals; no one wanted to risk their career. But as the protests grew, the entertainment industry gained a measure of courage. Several popular local singers, including Denise Ho, Kay Tse and Anthony Wong, have been seen standing at the protesters’ side. The choice of a Western number depicting a French protest in 1832 adds a soupçon of historical import to the current gathering.
The protesters are also getting their message across the modern, international way by branding their movement with symbols. Many sport umbrellas — real or on stickers, photographs, drawings and in origami — because they have become the ultimate symbol of the movement since protesters began using them for protection against pepper spray and tear gas.
Paul Zimmerman, an elected councilor who was invited to the official ceremony for China’s National Day, made himself a hero to students by quietly unfurling a yellow umbrella on that rainless day. And, of course, demonstrators have been breaking into choruses of Rihanna’s 2007 hit “Umbrella.”
Hong Kong’s mixed cultural heritage runs deep even among the police officers now charged with enforcing Beijing’s will in the territory. Ethnically, the 30,000-strong force is 99 percent Hong Kong Chinese, but its culture is eclectically Western, from its hierarchical structure to its off-duty rituals. At an official dinner a few years ago, I commented that the ceremonial garb included distinctive plaids from Scotland, including the bright red Mackintosh tartan. An officer next to me shook his head. “No,” he said, “that tartan signifies Hong Kong Island officers, and the one over there is from Kowloon.” Then a bagpipe player escorted a man carrying a pewter tray with a shot glass of amber liquid — a wee dram not of whisky, but of Chinese tea.
Scientists have long debated the pros and cons of crossbreeding. Botanists mock the bauhinia, the flower that represents Hong Kong on flags and coins, by pointing out that it is a sterile hybrid. But hear the protesters sing “I hope one day you’ll join us and the world will live as one” to their police cousins over the barricades, and you know the Hong Kong blend produces beautiful children.
Nury Vittachi is a columnist and author based in Hong Kong.