Humans of Hong Kong

Humans of Hong Kong

Translated version of feature stories and interviews by Stand News. 立場新聞專題、人訪的英文版本。

2020/1/29 - 17:33

Interview with Denise Ho A Singer, A Human Rights Activist - Singing and Speaking out For Hong Kong

Denise Ho has a fear of public speaking.

She has been a professional singer for twenty years. When she was 20, she had already gotten used to playing her guitar in front of tens and thousands of people. Not only was she not scared, she radiated confidence and energy. She can sing on stage. But giving speeches on stage is a different matter altogether.

Before the breakout of the anti-extradition movement in June 2019, Denise was already travelling to the US, the UK, Australia, Norway and Taiwan to speak about the political situation in Hong Kong. She went to forums organised by human rights groups, the parliamentary hearings of Western countries, and the UN Human Rights Council, and was also widely interviewed by international media. “Travelling all the time may look fun. But for me it’s a real pain. I am not very good at expressing myself in words – plus I have to do it in English. Speaking in Cantonese for 10 minutes already gives me butterflies in my stomach…” Denise said. “Not to mention the fact that I am speaking about things in which I do not have a professional background,” Denise added.

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Before every meeting Denise has to do tons of preparation, reading about the people she is going to meet, checking the speeches previously made by other participants, and familiarising herself with the details of the legislation she is lobbying for. Denise always writes her own speeches. Occasionally she may ask someone to do it for her because she is so pressed for time, but in the end, she will always end up doing it herself. “Writing it myself gives it a different ‘vibe’,” Denise said.

Like other Hongkongers who are participating in the anti-extradition movement, Denise frequently asks herself what she ought to do and what else she can do. In these moments of questioning, she attempts to extend her horizons, to explore the roles that she can take up; at the same time, as the movement develops, she is also discovering new possibilities for herself.

“Do your best in what you do best. Regardless of your position, you don’t have to be someone you are not. Think about what you are best in, then do it.”

An Orator
It never occurred to Denise that she would become an ambassador for Hong Kong, telling the world what is happening in the city. However, Helen F. Siu, a professor of anthropology at Yale University, told Denise a long time ago that she embodies the pluralistic Hong Kong identity. Being a typical ‘hybrid’, Denise was born in Hong Kong and grew up in North America. She is an artist and an advocate for the LGBT community. In Professor Siu’s eyes, this is a perfect profile for someone stepping into the international spotlight.

“That’s an exaggeration,” Denise thought. She thought Professor Siu was saying that her ‘hybrid’ identity would allow her as a musician to develop an international audience. With the benefit of hindsight, Denise finally knows what she meant.

Denise’s pluralistic identity is not simply an embellishment, outside the realm of politics – it is a key that opens many doors and opportunities. The organization TED, which seldom works with political figures and thus has not been censored in China, was able to invite Denise to give a talk as an LGBT activist to talk about ‘Creativity’. She used the theme to touch upon the resistance movement in Hong Kong.

“If we rely only on street protests, the costs will be very high, and people will get worn out. The question is, how can we make use of the achievements from the street protests, and extend the movement?” Denise asked.

Joshua Wong, Denise Ho and others attending the hearing on Hong Kong at the Congress on 17 September 2019.

Joshua Wong, Denise Ho and others attending the hearing on Hong Kong at the Congress on 17 September 2019.

Months of travelling and attending international conferences and talks have led Denise Ho to rethink her dual identity of being a singer and a social and human rights activist. “My identity as a singer is indispensable, because there are very few people from the cultural industry who are willing to speak out for Hong Kong,” Denise said.

Starting as a greenhorn, Denise is now increasingly confident about her ability to speak about Hong Kong to the world. The city has captured the international media spotlight; but at the same time, the Chinese Communist Party propaganda machine is also kicking it up a notch. As a part of the resistance, Denise wants to seize every stage and every opportunity to tell the world about young protesters’ stories.

“My role allows me to bring out the details of the protests,” Denise said. The most unforgettable detail for foreigners is how frontline protesters will put wills in their rucksacks before leaving home to protest. “It immediately strikes them that the protesters are not just a dehumanized, black-clad mass bent on destruction, but people mobilizing against something that will have an impact on their entire generation,” Denise said.

Apart from the grand narratives of geopolitics and international relations, these are vignettes that move and touch people’s hearts.

Denise is undoubtedly a very effective public speaker. But her ability to move audiences is rooted in what she experienced and witnessed alongside protesters on the frontlines.

Taking the initiative
Compared to her role as an observer in the 2014 Umbrella Movement five years ago, in 2019, Denise has evolved from being a participant to a person who takes initiative. At first, she told Stand News that this was a coincidence; but she then corrected herself, saying that this development was “inevitable”.

On 12 June 2019, Denise was standing next to the Civil Human Rights Front stage, outside the glass door entrance of Citic Tower––supposedly a very safe spot. With no advance warning, the police fired tear gas at those congregating at the rally, which had been issued a Letter of No Objection. The crowd fell into chaos. Denise was pushed and pressed against the glass wall of the Tower.

“I thought I had chosen a safe spot. When I turned back, I was already pushed to the very front [facing the police],” Denise said.

At the time, Denise was surrounded by moderate, peaceful, rational, non-violent protesters. Secondary school students and office ladies attempted to scramble their way into the Tower. Before Denise could realize what was happening, she had been left exposed at the frontline, facing the rapidly advancing riot police. She attempted to negotiate with the police, in order to buy time for the people at the back to leave. Standing between the escalator and the phalanx of riot police, Denise’s action was captured in an iconic photograph: it was that moment that changed her image from that of a so-called ‘leftard’ [someone who insists on using peaceful, rational, non-violent methods of protest] to that of a comrade who would put herself on the line for the benefit of her fellow protesters.

Denise had her first taste of tear gas on June 12. That was also her first time being at the frontline, negotiating with the police. “Once you have tried it, you will be less nervous about it. Next time you will actively occupy that position,” Denise said.

Since then, Denise has been at the scene during almost every confrontation. Using her celebrity, she urges the police to remain calm, comforts frightened passers-by, and tries to find exit routes for fleeing protesters… However, with the intensification of the movement––the escalating tactics of the police and the exchange of molotov cocktails––Denise’s role in the protests has gradually diminished. In order to avoid getting in the way of frontline protesters, she has moved to the back; although Denise wants to stand with protesters, she is trying to reconfigure her position.

During the protests in Sheung Wan on 28 July, Denise was at the rear of the frontline. She saw young people holding either cardboard shields or swimming boards, battling against tear gas canisters and rubber bullets from the police.

“You could feel the fear in the air; but in spite of the fear, the young people did not run away. They said to each other: ‘Hey, let’s get back to the front.’” Denise confessed she did not have such courage. “That kind of courage and selflessness… between absolute strangers. Where does that trust come from?”

That scene left a permanent mark on her, even though she would see many more frightening clashes later. Protesters fought the police into the early hours of the morning. One refused to leave. Denise went up and attempted to talk to him.

That’s how Denise became his ‘parent’ [someone who provides back-up to young protesters, usually by driving them home, giving them free meals, or even providing shelters for them.]. During the siege of Polytechnic University, Denise called on people to drive to the campus to pick up people who managed to escape. That night, she drove her car to the surrounding areas, and was mired in traffic on the highway towards PolyU. The anxiety and heartbreak of that night is a collective trauma felt by all Hongkongers.

“I would never have thought that I would meet new people because of the movement. Looking back, it’s easier to remember the big picture; but it’s the small details that make this movement so special to me,” Denise said.

Denise Ho was arrested after the Umbrella Movement

Denise Ho was arrested after the Umbrella Movement

Creative Dissent in Hong Kong
Weeks before the breakout of the anti-extradition movement Denise had been invited to deliver a speech in Oslo. Hong Kong was still trapped in existential despair of a fatalistic kind ––there had not yet been the eruption of the 9 June march, which was attended by 1.3 million people. In her speech, however, Denise argued Hongkongers would find hope again––all they needed was a spark.

After the ‘failure’ of the Umbrella Movement, many people had lost hope. But Denise still remembered the unprecedented outbursts of creativity in the Movement.

It was the Umbrella Movement that brought Denise back to Hong Kong. Although she had a stellar singing career in the city, Denise said she often felt out of place within the singing industry and even mainstream Hong Kong society. Her songs were well received and reviewed in Taiwan and she had thought of building her career on the island.  “That was until I stood as one of many during the Umbrella Movement. I finally felt a sense of belonging to Hong Kong, a sense of being at home.”

In her talk in Oslo, she repeatedly stressed the importance of creativity. The authoritarian regime will try its best to extinguish creativity; but creativity is something that it cannot fully grasp.

As a singer and composer, Denise has developed a new attitude towards creativity. In 2018, Denise started writing her own lyrics. As she became more involved in activism, she became increasingly interested in the messages and meanings of lyrics. Even Wyman Wong, her trusted lyricist, found it difficult to connect with her experiences. “It is a painfully difficult process [writing lyrics], but if I can do it, I prefer to do it myself, because then they [the lyrics] will more accurately express what I want to say.” Denise said. “It’s like having someone write a speech for you, it does not work as well as when you write it yourself,” Denise laughed.

It took Denise two months to finish her first song, ‘Polar’. She performed this song at the close of her speech in Oslo Freedom Forum.

A Singer
“I was very nervous. The acoustics were bad, and there was no band. I could not hear my own voice. Most importantly, the audience could not understand Cantonese. But to hell with it, I sang the song anyway. To my surprise, quite a few people from the audience came up to me after my performance, and said they absolutely adored the song even though they could not understand the lyrics. They were moved and could feel the spirit of the song,” Denise said.

“That was a great revelation to me. Music is actually useful. The ‘vibe’ which you project, can cut through a person,” Denise said.

Denise remembers that the public was quite ambivalent about the role of arts and music in social movements five years ago, perhaps right up till the outbreak of the anti-extradition movement. That discouraged her from singing at the scene of protests. In an unexpected twist, she rediscovered the interconnection between music and resistance on the other side of the planet, from an audience who could not understand the lyrics of her song.

“That experience makes me believe that I must defend my identity as a singer,” Denise said.

In 2019, hardly anyone could dispute the unique importance of music and the arts in bringing about a more united and sustained social movement, with examples ranging from the ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ anthem to the Fei Ma remix of Sia’s Chandelier.

Apart from singing in protests and on speech podiums, reaching thousands of people at a time, Denise can also use her voice to move individuals.

Once, Denise visited a protester who had been jailed after the 2016 Mong Kok civil unrest. The first meeting was a bit awkward. So, Denise suggested that she could sing a song for the protester. She thought the protester would ask her to sing a song related to the resistance movement. To Denise’s surprise, he asked her to sing ‘Glamorous’ for him - a romantic Cantopop song. Across the glass window, through the phone, Denise sang the protester his favourite song, that he had not heard for many years.

Denise Ho performed in Po Hing Fong in Sheung wan on 19 June 2019.

Denise Ho performed in Po Hing Fong in Sheung wan on 19 June 2019.

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In the past few years, Denise has been very involved in social activism, trying new projects in different areas. She did not devote much time to composing and singing, partly because she needed to figure out a way forward after being banned from performing in China, but also because the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement had left her speechless. Since June, Denise has been trying to write a song about the anti-extradition movement, but she has been too busy to sit down and do it. At the same time, her hunger to create and compose is stronger than it has been for the past five years.

“Compared to the writer’s block I have been experiencing for the last five years, I have so much to say now.”

Since June 2019, Denise has been giving speeches around the world, standing at the protest scenes with frontline protesters, and thinking of writing a new song. She wants to recover her connection with music, and practice using musical notation and reading music scores, so that she can turn her flashes of inspiration into lines of a song, even without her instruments at hand.

Like any Hongkonger who has protested against the government, Denise is psychologically prepared for arbitrary arrest, criminal charges, and potential jail-time. These days, revolution comes with a price - and it is a rising price that only few can escape. Arrested protesters often talk about what kind of books their family members will send them if they are jailed. For Denise, the task will be to create, compose and write lyrics even in prison.

After all, that is what she is best in, compared to speaking in public.

“It is difficult to express many fragmented scenes with language. The best way to do it is to record these personal experiences and emotions through song,” Denise said.