Sunflowers and Umbrellas: Music in the Umbrella Movement

Finally published in December!

Thomas Gold and Sebastian Veg, eds., Sunflowers and Umbrellas. Social Movements, Expressive Practices, and Political Culture in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies (China Research Monographs 76), 2020, 264 pp.

My chapter:
Music in the Umbrella Movement: From Expressive Form to New Political Culture.
[abstract] Music typically plays an important role in social movements, in particular in shaping a movement culture and collective memory. Protests end but protest songs endure, and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement was no exception. The Umbrella Movement had a strongly expressive dimension, and music played an important role in the outpour of creativity that far surpassed the movement’s strictly political demands. In addition to the “theme songs” of the movement (“Raise the Umbrella” and “Do you hear the people sing”), many indie performers joined the occupation, and lyrics spilled over onto posters and into slogans. But music was also useful in framing the political claims of the movement, by referencing the musical culture of previous protest movements, like the June Fourth Vigil and the July First march. Finally, there was some circulation of musical elements from the Sunflower to the Umbrella movements.
Music sums up many of the tensions or contradictions of the Umbrella Movement: between cosmopolitan and local culture, consumerist and anti-capitalist practices, traditional protest and the new generation. This chapter argues that the music of the Umbrella Movement expresses a change in political culture, in particular a turn away from pan-Chinese themes and the commercial Cantopop that first expressed Hong Kong identity in the 1970s, and towards a local, though cosmopolitan, culture that is in the process of emerging. The controversy around the National Anthem law has recently suggested the resistance in Hong Kong to musical expression of national identity.

Since the book format is not entirely conducive to clicking on links, and the real feeling of the music is probably best conveyed by listening rather than academic pontificating, here is a collection of clips to accompany my chapter. I’ve arranged them into three parts: (1) June Fourth Vigils (2) Umbrella Occupation Songs (3) Musical expressions of Hong Kong’s multiple identities.

1) June 4th vigils and pre-Umbrella social movements
The vigils left a deep imprint on the musical culture of Hong Kong’s protest movement (for more background, see a great essay by Elson Tong on the musical legacy of June 4); the Umbrella Movement both gestured toward this influence and more often than not introduced ironic distance.
“Homage to the martyrs” (祭英烈), to the tune of “A true man must be strong” 男兒當自強, the theme song of Tsui Hark’s film Once Upon a Time in China (Wong Fei-hung), written by the famous Cantopop lyricist and comic James Wong 黃霑 (1941-2004), infuses the hieratic nationalist style of the original music that inevitably calls to mind the soldiers executing martial arts movements in the film trailer with the theme of the dead martyrs of June Fourth.
“Blood-stained glory” 血染的風采, generally the only song sung in Mandarin at the vigil, originated as a PLA song of the Sino-Vietnamese war; it was sung by students in the square and remains strongly associated with 1989 (sung by Anita Mui).
“For freedom” (為自由) was specially composed by Lowell Lo for Hong Kong’s Concert for Democracy in China held on 27 May 1989 in Happy Valley, sung by all artists present. It was reportedly the first song to be performed in Cantonese on Tiananmen Square and became the anthem of the Hong Kong Alliance.
“Flower of Freedom” (自由花) uses the melody of Taiwanese composer Zheng Zhi-hua’s 鄭智化 song “The Seaman” (水手, 1992). When the dissident Wang Xizhe was released from prison in 1993, he reportedly hummed the tune during his first press conference; the Hong Kong Alliance subsequently decided to adopt it, asked Chow Lai-mau to write new lyrics for it, and included it in June Fourth vigils. The line “No matter how hard the rain beats down, freedom will still blossom” (無論雨怎麼打,自由仍是會開花) was often seen on Umbrella Movement posters.
The band Beyond’s song “Boundless Seas, Vast Skies” (海闊天空, 1993) is an anthem of Hong Kong’s protest movements. It became famous after the singer Wong Ka-kui’s tragic death just weeks after its release and was sung during the 2010 anti-High Speed Rail protest, the 2012 anti-National Education movement, and again during the Umbrella Movement.
“Democracy will prevail” 民主會戰勝歸來, written by the band VIIV, appeared on the internet in 2012, quickly caught on and was incorporated into the vigil. Written by a young indie band, it epitomized the reappropriation of June Fourth by the Anti-National Education generation. It was later spoofed by a “localist version” of the lyrics titled “The City-State will prevail” 城邦會戰勝歸來 inspired by Chin Wan’s iconoclastic theories about the “altar of demons” (i.e. the June Fourth vigil), and presenting him as the savior of the Hong Kong city-state as well as Chinese civilization (華夏) from “communist reds,” invading “locusts,” American imperialists, out-of-touch middle classes and naïve leftists (known as “left plastics”).

2) Umbrella Occupation
“Do you Hear the People Sing,” originally composed as “La Volonté du Peuple” for the 1980 French musical Les Misérables, adapted as a West-End musical in 1985, then as a Broadway production that enjoyed a 16-year run from 1987 to 2003, seems to have become an international protest song after the release of the film derived from the musical around Christmas 2012. It appeared in Gezi Park in Istanbul in May 2013, on Maidan square in Ukraine in February 2014, in Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in March 2014, in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement in late spring and early summer of 2014, in the Umbrella movement, and again in South Korea in 2016. A Mandarin version also exists, and the English version was sung in an incident in Shanghai reported in 2018.
The Cantonese version ubiquitous in the Umbrella Movement “Who has not yet spoken out?” 試問誰還未發聲, (sometimes “Who has not yet awoken?” 試問誰還未覺醒) was performed in multiple versions, including by Oxford students and by a group of artists gathered in the Hong Kong Arts Centre at the initiative of the actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang after a performance of the musical Equus (which Wong had brought to Hong Kong) on 2 June 2014, in protest against the mainstream singers who refused to associate with Occupy Central with Love and Peace. A similar appropriation is John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which was performed in Cantonese and quoted in slogans (“You may say I’m a dreamer”) during the movement; Lennon also gave his name to the post-it wall at Admiralty inspired by the Lennon Wall in Prague.
Denise Ho and Anthony Wong’s main musical contribution to the movement was the song “Raise the Umbrella.” The music and lyrics were reportedly first written by local songwriter Pan (Lo Hiu-pan), after the teargas events of September 28: he sent them to Denise Ho, who asked Lin Xi (Albert Leung, who had worked with Leslie Cheung, Faye Wong, Andy Lau, as well as written the lyrics to the Beijing Olympics theme song “Beijing Welcomes You”) to revise the wording.
A song borrowed from Taiwan was “Stubborn” (倔強 Juejiang, 2004) by the Taiwanese rock band Mayday (Wuyuetian 五月天). Mayday, a group of five singers born in the 1970s, set up as a group in the late 1990s, and became an initially edgy, later increasingly mainstream, rock group in Taiwan, singing almost exclusively in Mandarin. After initially supporting the Sunflower Movement, they came under pressure from their mainland fans and scaled down their public support.
But the Umbrella Movement was also full of indie voices. My Little Airport (MLA), founded by Ah P and Nicole Au when they were still college students in journalism, released its first album in 2004, and become involved in the cultural activism that developed around the heritage protection movement (incidentally, the indie group Fan Hung A 粉紅A – also devoted a beautiful song to the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier in 2006, named “Goodbye” 再見 – the clip is edited by Anson Mak).  For the 60th anniversary of the PRC, MLA released “Love the Country, but not the party” 我愛郊野,但不愛派對 (sung in English). Taking part in the occupation in a relatively low-profile manner, they released a song dealing directly with the movement itself. In “Tonight Let’s go sleep together in Connaught Road Central” (今夜到干諾道中一起瞓), they strike a playful pose, planning to sleep together in different streets every night (“extra-low rent”) and wondering where the nearest toilet might be, although they also allude to mafia interference, and tensions between Mongkok (Dundas Street) and Admiralty (Connaught Rd), and complain about the noise coming from the “big stage.”
New Youth Barbershop 新青年理髮廳, a group that appeared at the time of the protests against redevelopment of the North East New Territories and continued during Occupy Central with Love and Peace, with one band member being arrested on 1 July 2014. During the Umbrella Movement, they released the song “What the world fears most is not absurdity” 世界最怕唔係荒謬 which satirizes the discourse of the government and pro-establishment groups. The name of the band connects both with the wave of cultural heritage activism (it is the name of a real old-style barber shop in Hung Hom) and with the longer history of student movements in 20th century China.
Some other indies include Michael Lai’s song “I promise you an umbrella” 撐著 for which Chow Yiu-fai wrote the lyrics. The song “Umbrella” (雨遮) is an example of participative creation, originating in a poem posted in Admiralty, to which a student wrote a tune, and which was performed by a group of students who later formed a band. The high school group Boyz Reborn composed a mock-rap song called Teargas 催淚彈, to “commemorate 928” (the day on which the teargas was fired).

3) Music and Hong Kong identity
You could tell the story of Hongkongers’ complicated feelings of belonging through a series of songs.
In the early days of the Sino-British negotiations, Zhang Mingmin’s “My Chinese heart” (1982), expressed delight at the coming return to the motherland. Since no Hong Kong professional singer would sing in Mandarin, the producer found Zhang, an amateur singer with a left-wing Trade Union, and brought him to Beijing to be showcased in the 1984 Lunar New Year’s Gala on CCTV, preparing the public for the signature of the Joint Declaration and the beginning of the countdown to 1997. It was an early coproduction of Hong Kong show business and Beijing propaganda.
In the 1980s, “Descendants of the Dragon,” written in Taiwan by Hou Dejian when he was a university student protesting the de-recognition of the Republic of China by the US in 1978, became a hit in China as well as Hong Kong. After he defected to China, Hou performed it at the New Year’s Gala of 1988 and, of course, on Tiananmen square.
At the famous concert held in Happy Valley on 27 May 1989 (at which Hou also performed), Teresa Teng sang “My home is on the other side of the mountain” 家在山那邊, giving new meaning to the words originally composed in Taiwan.
During the Umbrella Movement, an old favorite “Under the Lion Rock” (獅子山下), was sung by actress Deanie Ip, Anthony Wong Yiu-ming and Denise Ho in Admiralty on the first month after the tear gas day. It originated as the theme song of the television series Below the Lion Rock that was first broadcast on RTHK from 1972 to 1979, and is often considered the “unofficial anthem” of Hong Kong. Composed by Joseph Koo, with lyrics by James Wong, it was originally sung by Roman Tam 羅文 (1944-2002).
It contrasts with another song performed by Roman Tam and which was also sung at the Happy Valley Gala and later at June Fourth vigils up to the Umbrella Movement (including at the 25th anniversary in 2014): “China Dream” (中國夢, 1984, lyrics also by James Wong), which enumerates a series of tropes related to China’s majestic geography (the Yellow River as the source of all Chinese dreams), long history (5000 years, Han and Tang dynasties), and potent symbolism (awakening dragon, roaring lion).
It is certainly significant that “Under the Lion Rock” experienced a kind of rebirth after the Umbrella Movement. Eventually, however, it too was eclipsed by the music of the 2019 anti-ELAB movement…

Further Listening and Reading:
HRIC has compiled a playlist of five important songs of the Umbrella Movement.
Victoria Hui has compiled a vast set of links on the music of the Movement.
An excellent roundup of artwork and music in Chinese.
Alec Ash’s essay (with links to clips) on protest music in Hong Kong
France Culture (radio) show Juke Box on 100 years of Hong Kong history through pop music.
On the 2019 protests: F For: Hong Kong Protest Music 香港抗爭音樂誌 Volume 1 (of 3 planned).