Cantopop queen on a crusade

Source: SCMP (9/18/16)
Denise Ho: the Cantopop Queen on a crusade against China’s Communist party
She has been labelled ‘Hong Kong poison’ by Beijing, which has also called for her to be boycotted, but the singer is determined to spread her message
By Tom Phillips in Hong Kong

Cantonese pop singer and activist Denise Ho speaks during an interview in Hong Kong.

Cantonese pop singer and activist Denise Ho speaks during an interview in Hong Kong. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP

Denise Ho’s struggle against the Communist party of China began at 5.58pm on a Sunday afternoon. It was as the Hong Kong Cantopop queen watched aghast as live television images showed police fire the first of 87 canisters of teargas into a sea of pro-democracy demonstrators, in a botched bid to quell their protest.

“I couldn’t stand by and just watch everyone fight,” the 39-year-old pop star recalls of the clashes in September 2014 that sparked the former colony’s umbrella movement street occupation, two years ago next week. “I just had to stand up and to say something.”

Stand up she did.

Over the coming 79-days, Ho made daily excursions to the main protest camp in Admiralty and became one of the uprising’s most influential and glamorous backers: a celebrity cheerleader who threw her stardom behind the historic bid to wrestle democratic concessions from authoritarian Beijing.

“These students are not fighting for lollipops for themselves… they are fighting for Hong Kong people,” she told one interviewer. “As adults … we must fight for them.”

Fast-forward two years and Ho – a petite pop icon famed for her theatrical stage shows and tear-jerking hit such as Angel Blues and We Stand as One – has transformed herself into a respected pro-democracy campaigner whose outspokenness has earned her the adoration of fans and the wrath of China’s communist rulers.

“This wasn’t planned at all for me,” the singer said during an interview with the Guardian at a recording studio on the south-side of Hong Kong island, reflecting on her switch from artist to activist.

Denise Ho is arrested and escorted by police officers during the clearance of Occupy Central Pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong.

Denise Ho is arrested and escorted by police officers during the clearance of Occupy Central Pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong. Photograph: Lucas Schifres/Getty Images

Denise Ho Wan-sze was born in Hong Kong in 1977 but grew up in Quebec, after her family emigrated when she was 11.

“I think it was the fear of the return to China,” she says of her parents’ decision to abandon the British colony in the lead-up to the 1997 handover. “A lot of people were leaving at that time.”

Months before Hong Kong’s return to China, the dream of pop stardom lured the budding singer back to the city of her birth. She appeared on a television talent contest and caught the eye of one of the judges, Anita Mui, a Cantopop diva some called Asia’s Madonna.

“She took me in as one of her disciples,” Ho recalls of how Mui, an outspoken artist who backed the 1989 Tiananmen protesters and died prematurely of cancer in 2003, helped kickstart her career.

Nearly two decades later Ho has built a loyal following in her native Hong Kong, recording more than two dozen albums while simultaneously carving out a career as a television and film actress. In 2007 she provided the Cantonese voice-over for Bart Simpson in The Simpsons Movie.

Until relatively recently, Ho had also been building a following over the border in mainland China, releasing her first Mandarin-language record, Nameless Poem, in 2010. By 2014, the singer said her mainland audience accounted for about 80% of her income.

The outbreak of the umbrella movement – and Ho’s decision to join its ranks – threatened to thwart the singer’s attempts to break the lucrative mainland Chinese market.

Incensed at the police’s attempts to crush those demonstrations, Ho became a regular face at the protest camp. Along with fellow Cantopop star Anthony Wong she recorded Raise your Umbrellas, a song that would become one of the movement’s anthems.

“Standing on the frontlines, we are filled with courage even though the future is grim,” they sing in one verse. “Who would have guessed that to see through the lies we must open our eyes in the smoke of teargas?”

Most local pop stars declined to join the protests for fear of angering Beijing and losing their access to the mainland, Jason Ng recalls in his book about the demonstrations, Umbrellas in Bloom.

“[But Wong and Ho] demonstrated their steely backbones by risking their careers for social justice, and at the same time amplified the deafening silence of all the other Cantopop stars who had gone missing in action,” Ng writes.

Challenging the Communist party so publicly was always likely to have a price. The South China Morning Post warned Ho was committing “career suicide” by standing up to Beijing.

And sure enough the counter-attack came. One hostile editorial, published by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, backed calls for a boycott of artists such as Ho who had defied Beijing by taking to the streets. “Don’t think you can eat our food and smash our pots at the same time,” it sniped.

Earlier this year the attacks escalated after she met Beijing’s nemesis, the Dalai Lama, and posted a photograph on social media. Chinese state media responded aggressively, labelling her “Hong Kong poison” and accusing her of “tarnishing China’s image”.

Asked how the insults affected her, Ho shrugs. “I don’t feel much actually,” the softly spoken pop star says with a laugh. “I’m the target for everyone actually, not only the Chinese [Communist] party.”

Ho says she had also faced the wrath of radical pro-democracy protesters who question her commitment to non-violence as the only way of fighting Beijing’s “suppression.”

“The arrows come from all sides,” says Ho, who came out as gay on stage in 2012, and believes years of tabloid speculation about her private life has helped her develop a thick skin.

Two years after she joined the fight for universal suffrage, Ho claims predictions that her career would flounder have proved misplaced.

She parted company with her old record company in the wake of the umbrella movement. “The boss was against what I was doing,” she remembers. “So we decided to take different paths.”

Invitations to perform in mainland China have also dried up while Chinese streaming platforms, including iTunes, appear to be deleting or filtering her songs.

But Ho continues to make music – now through her own label Goo Music – and will perform four sold-out concerts at the 12,000-capacity Hong Kong Coliseum in October.

“It wasn’t quite the suicide [critics expected],” she says. “Actually, I would say it’s a rebirth of a different career path.”

Still, a recent controversy involving the French cosmetics firm Lancôme underlined the very real consequences of daring to challenge Beijing.

Denise Ho performs during a free concert in Hong Kong after cosmetics giant Lancome cancelled a concert featuring the local singer who is critical of China.

Denise Ho performs during a free concert in Hong Kong after cosmetics giant Lancome cancelled a concert featuring the local singer who is critical of China. Photograph: Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images

In June, the make-up company pulled the plug on a promotion concert at which Ho had been due to sing after a Beijing-run newspaper hinted it could face a boycott if it made the pro-democracy singer its public face.

Lancôme promptly disowned the singer and claimed the show had been cancelled because of safety concerns. “I think they reacted out of fear that they would lose the [Chinese] market,” Ho says, accusing Lancôme of spreading fear through society by signalling that people should be afraid of speaking their minds when faced with what she called China’s “white terror”.

“That is something that is not acceptable to me.”

As Hong Kong approaches the 20th anniversary of its return to Chinese controlnext year, Ho says her biggest worry is the anger building up among the former colony’s youth as they try to defend their freedoms.

“People are feeling quite hopeless,” she says, pointing to Beijing’s suspected abduction of a local bookseller and the “ridiculous” decision to block six pro-independence candidates from the recent election for Hong Kong’s parliament.

“This isn’t something that should happen in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong that we know. In this sense Hong Kong is becoming just like mainland China – because that is how it works in mainland China. They do not need to give you any reason for whatever decisions they make.”

Ho voices such fears in regular columns for outlets such as the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, urging fans and readers to stand up for their political rights.

“We all have a responsibility to defend this city’s core values,” she wrote in one recent article. “Do not say you have no choice. Everyone has a choice.”

As the second birthday of the umbrella movement nears, Ho says she feels frustrated at how many continue to call it a failure. She blames that on an obsession she believes Hong Kong’s education system has with quantifiable results.

“People are trained to think this way, that if we do something that doesn’t give us an immediate result then that means we have failed … [But] that’s not how it happens anywhere in the world, especially when you are facing such a big machine that is the Chinese Communist party.”

In fact, Ho describes the three-month-long protests as a historic awakening for the semi-autonomous city’s youth, the first step on an uncertain but essential quest for democracy.

“This generation has changed because of the umbrella movement, and I think that is something that nobody dreamed of … for the past 30 or 40 years in Hong Kong,” she says.

For a while after the protests, Ho says she pondered running for a seat in LegCo, Hong Kong’s 70-member legislature, to which a number of umbrella movement veterans, including the student leader Nathan Law, were recently elected in what was seen as a stinging rebuke to Beijing.

But the singer decided not to swap song-making for speech-writing, preferring to use her art to spread a message of hope and solidarity that might help heal the growing frustrations of Hong Kong’s youth.

“We have to think what comes after this rage,” she says. “For me, going back to doing my music and putting these thoughts into songs … that is my role, I think.”

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