How a Pop Star Became the Face of Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Movement

Denise Ho once had a promising music career in mainland China. But she threw it all away to become one of the most vocal opponents to the country’s encroaching power in her hometown.

by Zing Tsjeng
Nov 18 2019, 3:16pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's 2019 Profiles Issue. This edition looks to the future by zeroing in on the underrecognized writers, scientists, musicians, critics, and more that will shape our world next year. They are "the Other 2020" to watch. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

It was 3 p.m. on a Sunday in September. The blinding sun streamed into the speakers’ lounge of the Sydney Opera House as Denise Ho—the Cantopop singer turned Hong Kong pro-democracy activist—regarded her newly assigned security detail with wry bemusement. Four burly guards—each roughly twice her size in width—flanked her. Five years after she first joined the front lines of the Umbrella Movement, the precursor to the pro-democracy movement of today, and was branded “Hong Kong poison,” Ho had now been deemed in need of some protection of her own.

Ho—a rail-thin figure in an all-black suit—was in Australia for Antidote Festival, a one-day cultural program of “ideas, action, and change” promoting progressive values, to present a talk on the Hong Kong protests, which began in March as a demand to withdraw a controversial extradition bill and have since morphed into a wider democratic movement. The Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson was scheduled to speak, as was the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, Christopher Wylie. I was at Antidote to interview Ho.

But unlike Mckesson or Wylie, Ho had invited some nervousness on the part of the organizers. Chinese nationalists had been gatecrashing pro–Hong Kong democracy rallies on Australian campuses since July, trading punches with attendees and, on one occasion, even grabbing a University of Queensland protester by the throat.

If Ho herself was worried, she didn’t let it show. “Whatever might happen,” she said to me before the event, “I’ll just have to deal with it.” Ho had stoically dealt with the repercussions of her outspoken activism ever since 2014, when she became the first celebrity in Hong Kong to get arrested at a pro-democracy demonstration.

At the time, she was a Cantopop singer best known for her relatively alternative take on the syrupy mainstream ballads that typify the genre. In 2012, she had become the first Hong Kong celebrity to come out as lesbian. But it was Ho’s move to pro-democracy activism that prompted the biggest retaliation from the Chinese authorities—she was blacklisted and her music was wiped from streaming platforms on the mainland.

Ho had spent the early 2010s diligently releasing music in putonghua—otherwise known as Mandarin, the official language of the mainland—and even starred in a well-received play that toured 11 Chinese cities. Now she had effectively been erased from one of her biggest potential markets.

“I have totally disappeared from the Chinese internet,” she told me. By her reckoning, she has lost out on millions, including from one high-profile incident in which the French cosmetics giant Lancôme yanked a concert featuring Ho after they received Chinese criticism online.

None of this discouraged Ho. She parted ways with her record label so she could produce her own music; she crowdfunded gigs and tried to figure out a way to exist outside of the powerful Chinese market. “I have spent the last four years trying to build my own ecosystem where I can release my own albums; I can release my own books,” she said.

The likelihood that her music will reappear in China is next to nil, not least because the latest protests in Hong Kong have cemented her international status as a vocal critic of the Hong Kong—and by extension, the Chinese—government. Her July speech at the UN Human Rights Council calling for China’s removal from the organization—an appearance twice interrupted by Chinese delegates—probably won’t help.

The current conflict in Hong Kong dates back to 1997, the year the UK agreed to restore Chinese sovereignty in its former colony with the understanding that Hong Kong would operate for a further 50 years under the “one country, two systems” principle. This meant Hong Kongers would have a degree of self-determination and liberty not enjoyed by their cousins on the mainland—including things like an independent judiciary.

In April, that judicial independence was threatened when the Hong Kong government introduced a bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to the mainland to face trial. “The proposed changes to the extradition laws will put anyone in Hong Kong doing work related to the mainland at risk,” Human Rights Watch’s Sophie Richardson said in a statement at the time. “No one will be safe, including activists, human rights lawyers, journalists, and social workers.”

On June 9, an estimated 1 million people marched against the bill. Ho was one of them; she livestreamed at the time to a modest audience of 3,000 or so viewers. “After five years of frustration and disappointment, Hong Kong people are bringing their hopes and dreams back on the streets,” she tweeted.

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Portrait by Alan Weedon

Her pro-democracy activism started as a by-product of her coming out as lesbian. After Hong Kong legislators scrapped a motion to solicit public comments on LGBTQ rights in 2012, she saw how “rigged and pro-government” the system was, favoring the status quo.

“I was very, very angry. That was why I chose to come out, because it so happened that the gay parade was that same weekend,” she said. “I do think that it was a very important move on this whole journey. Because if I had not done that, maybe I wouldn’t have had this kind of openness at least towards the public—I would have still had something that I was hiding from them.” When the Umbrella Movement came along, she found herself liberatingly able to participate. “I think that was a very important step. And I’m glad I did it.”

As the democracy protests built over the summer, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam—a pro-Beijing politician who came to power during the highly contested elections of 2017—held firm. The extradition bill was here to stay.

On June 12, Hong Kong was back on the streets. This time, police fired tear gas on protesters and hosed pepper spray into crowds; demonstrators armed themselves with bricks and umbrellas, using bottles of water to smother the smoking tear gas canisters. The violence has since escalated, resulting in flashpoint moments documented and shared widely on social media: a masked, armed mob attacking pro-democracy demonstrators on the subway; Molotov cocktails hurled at riot police; the shutdown of Hong Kong Airport; water cannons spraying blue-dyed water thought to be used to identify protesters. On October 1, the first protester was shot by police—a high school student they fired on at point-blank range.

The crowds swelled as the months passed—organizers said that nearly one in four people in a city of more than 7 million showed up to one protest in August. Through it all, Ho tweeted, streamed, and Instagrammed relentlessly. Her audience grew; tens of thousands of people watched one of her livestreams. In one post, she was filmed at the front of protests, defusing tensions between police and protesters in Cantonese.

The protests in Hong Kong are thought to be largely leaderless—instead, knowledge and resources are crowdsourced from an amorphous but organized group of protesters and allies. (The unofficial mantra of the protests comes from Bruce Lee: “Be water.”) Plans of action are coordinated on a Reddit-like forum called LIHKG, with people upvoting the best suggestions. One of the most striking images to come out of the protests has been the sight of well-organized piles of resources, including donations of water bottles, food, umbrellas, and even free T-shirts for anybody dyed blue from police water jets.

Out of this, Ho has emerged as one of the most distinctive faces of the protest by way of her preexisting celebrity. But she is keen to center the young people who are putting themselves in danger to defend a critical turning point in their birthplace’s existence. The protests are not just about the extradition bill; they have become a referendum on Hong Kong and its identity. Is it just another cog in the wheel powering China’s meteoric rise to global power? Or is it something entirely of its own making, distinguished by its colonial history and relative freedoms?

“It’s very important to keep this whole community [of young people], their hopes and their dreams and their wishes alive,” Ho said, “and to make them understand that this is not a lost cause, and this is not something that we’re doing in vain—it’s really something that is making a change. They are making the change.

Denise Ho has emerged as one of the most distinctive faces of the protest by way of her preexisting celebrity. But she is keen to center the young people who are putting themselves in danger to defend a critical turning point in their birthplace’s existence.

“The fact that I’m recognizable would be sort of like a protective shield for me, especially when I’m in front of police,” she explained. “Because they choose people to bully. They choose the very, very young people, and then they would just arrest them. Then sometimes you see them when they are in the face of these older people who challenge them, they would just shut up. And so I think, to some extent, that is true also for me.”

Anson Chan, the ex–chief secretary of Hong Kong, recently said that she was being followed after speaking out in support of the protests. Did that ring any bells? “I don’t think I have been followed, at least I haven’t noticed that. But I do think that my phone or my email might be... surveyed? Surveilled?” She laughed, trying to find the right word. “That’s the reality in Hong Kong right now. So we all just have to deal with it.”

Ho was born in 1977 in Hong Kong, two decades before the handover. When she was 11, her family moved to Montreal, where, if someone asked, she identified herself as chinoise (French for “Chinese”) from Hong Kong. These days, she feels differently. “Me, along with a lot of other Hong Kongers, I think that we would call ourselves Hong Kongers now. Personally, it has been quite a big change,” she said. “You know, I still have Chinese heritage and all these Chinese cultures. We still do speak Chinese. But it doesn’t feel right anymore to say ‘Oh, I am zung gwok yun’—Chinese.”

It’s a sentiment that would resonate with many young people in the territory. A University of Hong Kong survey in June found that almost nobody under age 30 identifies as Chinese. Far from being seamlessly reabsorbed back into the motherland, the handover has not brought Hong Kong closer to China—it has driven them farther apart.

“I do think that this generation of Hong Kongers are trying to define—to redefine—this concept of what is a Hong Konger. We are very unique in our culture, where we are this hybrid of the West and the East,” Ho said. “But at the same time, we still feel very attached to all these Chinese festivals and traditions that came from ancient Chinese cultures.”

In her early days in the entertainment business, Ho never quite felt like she fit in. Though she’d returned to Hong Kong at 19 to pursue a singing career after winning the New Talent Singing Awards, a star-making talent show on Hong Kong TV, she held onto the values she’d grown up with in Canada.

1573178567881-Pop-and-Politics-in-Hong-Kong-Antidote_Sydney-Opera-House_credit_Daniel-Boud_208
Photo by Daniel Boud

“That was what made me very, very different than most of the other people in the Hong Kong entertainment industry,” she said. “Hong Kong has always previously been a very materialistic society where the definition of success is very narrow. It’s like, OK, you earn such and such amount of money and fame, and then you’re successful. For me, that has never been the case.”

Still, Ho’s version of success has had to evolve as her career has been reshaped by her association with the Umbrella Movement. Sometimes she thinks about what might have been if she’d never gone down to the protests at all, but “then I look at my friends, who are now losing all their freedoms and all the liberties and seeing what they really believe in,” she said. People she knows in the entertainment business have asked her not to post photos of them together; to stay out of photographs entirely, or avoid their concerts for fear of any repercussions from China.

“In these very critical moments, my choice whether to stand on this or that side is quite clear and obvious to me,” she said. “Because I don’t think I can really be that kind of so-called celebrity who silences herself and just turns a blind eye to all that’s happening in the society. That is just undoable for me. That sacrifice would be even greater than what I’m experiencing now.”

At the Sydney Opera House, the security guards had dispersed among the audience to keep an eye on the crowd, and as Ho and I waited to go onstage for our conversation, we were alerted to the presence of a hidden exit behind the curtains that draped the stage so that we could slip out if things got rowdy.

As the lights went up, Ho, maybe sensing a way to defuse the tension, asked the audience how many were Hong Kongers. A sea of hands shot up. “So, those who are not from Hong Kong,” she said, visibly relaxing, “this presentation is for you guys.”

Over the course of the hour, Ho skillfully provided an overview of current events in Hong Kong (“a very, very, very critical situation”), showing photos and videos from the protests. She seemed keen to avoid any tensions that might arise between mainland Chinese attendees and Hong Kongers, telling one mainlander in the audience: “I want to make a point out of the fact that actually I have nothing against mainlanders—I have a lot of friends in [the] mainland.”

But when she showed a video of protesters undertaking one of their most audacious stunts yet—a 30-mile human chain that crisscrossed the streets and hills of Hong Kong—her demeanor changed. “It’s only been two and a half months, and so much has changed,” she said, choking up. She apologized and took a moment to compose herself.

Ga yau,” someone in the audience shouted encouragingly. The Cantonese phrase literally translates to “add oil,” and means keep going. Ho’s tears seemed to unlock something in the crowd—an emotional release almost like an exhale.

When she concluded her talk, people leapt to their feet and began cheering in a call and response that echoed around the auditorium: “Liberate Hong Kong!” “Revolution of our times!” Ho bowed, truly moved.

Four days after Ho’s presentation at the Antidote Festival, the protesters scored their first substantial win—Carrie Lam formally withdrew the extradition bill on September 4. But that wasn’t enough to quiet the unrest; thousands defied a police ban to attend a march less than two weeks later. Ho was in Taiwan at the time, but she cheered them on from her Twitter account. “It is now the 15th week of the historic Hong Kong summer of dissent,” she said. There was still no end in sight, but the singer who had once felt so out of place had finally found her home and her voice.

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