Interviewed by Hilary Miller.
Editor’s Note: Denise Ho (GS’20) is a woman moved by the courage of her own convictions. The award-winning Hong Kong-based singer, songwriter and actress is an ardent LGBT rights activist and has become a leading figure in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. She has committed herself to promoting democracy and universal values of freedom and human rights, not only for her fellow citizens of Hong Kong but also for all people around the world. Her sense of purpose is on full display in her new documentary “Denise Ho—Becoming the Song.” Drawing on unprecedented, years-long access, the film explores her remarkable journey from commercial Cantopop superstar to outspoken political activist, an artist who has put her life and career on the line to support the determined struggle of Hong Kong citizens to maintain their identity and freedom. I spoke with Ms. Ho about the film’s timely release after China passed the new National Security Law with the goal of usurping Hong Kong freedoms and shutting down the pro-democracy movement. She gives exclusive insight into particular moments of the documentary and shares the impact she hopes that it has on viewers of all generations and backgrounds. Ms. Ho also explains the current situation for the people of Hong Kong, and how the fight for human rights and democracy continues despite new obstacles.
At the beginning of the documentary, I found it especially profound when you said there was no turning back for Hong Kong after Beijing proposed the 2019 Extradition Bill. Now, with the recent passing of the National Security Law, what do you think is at stake for the future of Hong Kong?
As you know, things have escalated very, very fast here in Hong Kong ever since the announcement of the National Security Law. Beijing first announced a draft law at the end of May and it was quickly implemented in Hong Kong on the first of July. Since then, things have escalated and people are trying to adapt to the situation because it is drastically worse than the Extradition Bill that they tried to pass last June.
Since the passing of the new law on July 1, can you give readers a sense of what the situation on the ground is like today for the people of Hong Kong?
What we have seen happen since the first of July is that people are very fearful. At first, nobody knew what the law actually meant because they didn’t announce the details until after it was implemented. But, even when they announced the details, the phrasing was extremely ambiguous so there was still a lot of uncertainty. And, of course, the way Beijing gave power to the police and the Hong Kong government to basically do whatever they want with people they do not like created a huge wave of fear among Hong Kong people.
Right now, at the time of this interview which is the 20th of July and three weeks since the law has been implemented, people are starting to find ways to cope with this new situation; Hong Kong people are very flexible and we can adjust very quickly. We are in this new stage of knowing that there are things we cannot say out loud, which is ridiculous. The Hong Kong that we knew, where we could say whatever we wanted without having to face legal issues, is gone. Hong Kong is not Hong Kong anymore. We can not even recite the protest slogans that we were using before without having repercussions, or without being arrested for saying these very simple words. So, you could say that we are just another China entity right now. Despite this new reality we are facing, right now people from Hong Kong are fighting very hard to preserve whatever state that we do have. There are people who are still trying very hard to survive and fight within this gray area of autonomy and rights.
We have new developments every day. For example, today we heard the news that HSBC bank (The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) is reviewing the accounts of pro-democracy activist groups and individuals and threatening to freeze their accounts for something they might have said or done in the past that might conflict with the National Security Law. So, it is a very difficult time right now in Hong Kong and, basically, anyone who has spoken out in the past does not know what tomorrow could bring—we might be arrested or have our assets frozen because something does not conform to what the government views as “safe” according to the new law.
Given how quickly things have moved from the law’s introduction to its passing, I’m curious if people in Hong Kong believe this is temporary. Have they accepted this new reality, or is there still some hope that Beijing will reverse course?
As you can see, there have been responses from all over the world concerning the situation in Hong Kong. But, realistically, I don’t think that in the short-term we can see the Chinese government reversing any recent decisions on Hong Kong. The fact is that Beijing has pushed this law by overriding the Hong Kong legislative system and ignoring agreements from the Joint Declaration that promised “one country, two systems.” Right now, not only Hong Kong but also the whole world is seeing how China has failed to keep its promises. Before, we could still go along the lines of what was written in the Basic Law, but we don’t have that anymore. It is “one country, one system” right now in this very grim reality.
But, Hong Kong people are very resilient. Even if the situation is probably irreversible, we are still trying our best to fight for our freedom. So long as we keep up the fight, who knows what might happen?
The Chinese government does have a responsibility to respond to Hong Kong people because they are acting as if it’s 2047 when the 50-year deadline is over. Unfortunately, there’s not much that Hong Kong people can do legally speaking because the legislative system has been overthrown by the National Security Law; it has become so difficult for us to define what is “legal” and what is “illegal” in Hong Kong. I have spoken to lawyers in Hong Kong and, even for them, it’s difficult because there’s so much ambiguity. Basically, whatever the government says is “illegal” is illegal, so it’s just not Hong Kong anymore.
Before you said “Hong Kong is not Hong Kong anymore,” and obviously we can understand why that is from a legal perspective. But, this must have some personal impact. You were born in Hong Kong, you were raised there before moving to Canada, and you have influenced opinion and culture in this city. So, what does this new reality mean to you personally? How has this affected you?
I have many friends who are thinking about leaving the city, and some have already left. So, for someone like me who has already left Hong Kong and chose to come back, it’s actually a very sad situation because I can say that however far you go, your heart is still attached to this place. It is home for all of these people who took to the streets, who have spoken out during these last few years to stand up for what we believe in.
And seeing this sad outcome is the same as what previous generations have gone through; our parents, the parents of our parents, all these generations who felt the need to leave Hong Kong to start somewhere else. This is the reality of Hong Kong—we were a colony many years ago and then handed back to China. All of this has been very difficult for Hong Kong because we have such a confused identity. Who do we actually belong to? That is a real question that I think is in the minds of a lot of people.
In past situations like what we are experiencing right now, there were waves of people who left Hong Kong but eventually many came back. Now, a new wave of people is likely to leave. And maybe they will come back, but maybe not. This is something we have to face. And that is exactly why so many people are still trying right now so hard to fight for what is left of the Hong Kong we knew, because we are hoping for the day when we don’t feel the need to leave or escape from this place we call home. That is why I have chosen to stay in Hong Kong, for right now, despite facing the threats and the dangers. I can not say for sure what might happen in one year or in the next two, three, four, or five years. But, as long as I have a choice, I will stay here and fight with the people of Hong Kong.
In the documentary, there is a powerful scene of you confronting the police and, in a non-violent and respectful way, you ask for them to communicate, talk to protesters, understand the movement, be a partner. Could you explain how it was going face-to-face with these policemen and extending yourself to them in this way? Did you feel unsafe?
For some context, that particular moment happened in the early days of the movement last year. That situation happened very quickly. Just before, I was at a spot that I thought was safe but suddenly we were tear gassed from all sides. I was at the side of a commercial building when there were crowds pushing and screaming and trying to go inside the building, and a lot of people did. But, when the police went up to the building, a few other well-known activists and I decided to try to negotiate with them, or at least buy time for people to leave this building because it was a very dangerous situation with such a huge crowd and people potentially stepping all over each other.
My confronting the police was very much on impulse, something unexpected that happened in a short period of time. I didn’t plan anything meticulous. And, again, this happened during the very early days of protests last year when the police were less agitated and relatively more calm and reasonable. So, I was able to speak with the commander who was actually quite reasonable. He was like “okay” and just asked us to leave as quickly as possible.
For me, the more serious problem came not from the police but rather from the people behind the scenes, the government, the people who made those decisions to tear gas the people, the people up top. Even though the police are on the front lines, in the early days, not all of them wanted to be on the opposite side of the people. But, gradually we have seen police brutality and more casualties especially in the last few months with police becoming more and more aggressive towards the people. You must have seen all the footage from international media and, unfortunately, that is what happened later on. In the later days of the protests, I would not have approached the police because I would have either been arrested by them or beaten up. And, also, now they are far less scared to react if you are well-known.
The sentiment of anger and hate that has existed between the police and protesters is very difficult to solve because the government is just hiding behind the police force. This is something that we, the people, don’t have the power to resolve through legislation; it has to be resolved by the government which is not happening, obviously.
Another profound moment in the documentary reveals your nostalgia and appreciation for Montreal, which is where you moved after leaving Hong Kong at age 11. How did growing up there during your formative years shape your personal ideology and values? In what way did it inform your advocacy?
I think the days that I spent in Montreal were very important in shaping how I see things, my values, and also my mentality on a lot of different issues. One of them is the respect for individual freedoms, and, even if you are a minority you have the right to demand equal rights. That is something that I probably learned from Montreal because Montreal is still now one of the most, if not the most, open-minded cities that I have ever been to in my life. The people there, whether it was the friends that I met in school or whoever, always made me feel welcomed even though I was a minority with regard to ethnicity and a member of the LGBT community. This was very eye-opening for me.
Had I not spent my teenage years in Montreal, I don’t think that I would be the same person that I am now. For one thing, the education there is very different from Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, they try to make you conform. You have to have these model answers to all these questions and, if you are different, have a different answer, or perform differently, then you are deemed unsuccessful. That is how it is in Hong Kong; that’s how they define success. Obviously it’s very different from Canada, where the individual is a priority and the uniqueness of every person is celebrated, and so is the importance of freedom of speech and human rights. So, when I came back to Hong Kong and went into show business where there were so many rules in society and politics, I refused to conform and bow down. Thanks to my days in Canada, I learned to be, and still am, very rebellious.
Most celebrities with a platform and high profile play it safe to protect their careers, but you took a risk by staying true to your values and what you believe in. What do you make of this sacrifice? Have others in the entertainment industry sacrificed their careers to stand up for democracy in Hong Kong?
I do get asked this question a lot, being that I am in a society and industry where people are used to staying silent and just conforming to what people expect of them. I think one of the main reasons is that my whole career, my whole path started with my love for singing and performing. Gradually, I realized as someone who has this platform to voice my thoughts—whether it’s my own story or the stories of other people—there is so much good to do with it. Given that I have my own following of fans—some older, some younger— I see that as a very important part of my career. Maybe for other people they see the money, the material side, the fortune, and the fame and all of that. But, for me, what mattered most was connecting to people.
In the early days of my career, I realized that my songs could be a source of inspiration for young people and people who don’t have an ability to voice their thoughts. I could be one of their channels to better understand themselves or at least to have a voice that resonates with them. And when I became a singer, about five or six years into my career, I realized that this and not what I could personally earn, was what drove me the most. And connecting to people was the most rewarding part of my whole signing career; that there are people who could be encouraged, healed even from my music in very difficult times.
When I reflect on the early days of my career I think of two role models that inspired me the most. One of them is my good friend Anthony Wong, who’s also an openly gay singer in Hong Kong—actually the first one who came out to the public right before I did in 2012. He inspired me a lot because he was one of the very rare people who spoke out on social issues, beginning in the 80s and, to this day, continues to be one of the most outspoken figures on LGBT issues and politics. He inspired me to come out, and we stood together in the 2014 Umbrella Movement days and also during the recent pro-democracy protest movement. Even though he is from an older generation than me, I see him as a comrade and also a very good teacher.
The second role model, of course, is my mentor Anita Mui. She passed away in 2003. As you probably saw in the documentary, Anita was one of the most outspoken, if not the most outspoken singer and celebrity in Hong Kong during the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre in Beijing. For me, as a teenager, I was her superfan, and the way that I saw how she stood up during that particular moment for Beijing students was imprinted very strongly in my mind back then. In the later days when I myself became a singer, I realized how Anita as a role model impacted me; she always chose to do the right thing, at the right moment. I remember her being penalized for speaking out for Beijing students.
So, I think all of these things together pushed me to do the right thing, despite the so-called “sacrifices” that I might have made. I think the rewards that I will get by making myself useful in this time is all I need to go on.
How have recent developments with the National Security Law affected your activism?
Realistically speaking, at this very moment, I feel a need to be more careful with my words compared to if we did this interview two months ago, which is very unfortunate, but it’s the reality we are facing. It’s ridiculous to think that this girl who only held a white piece of paper during one of the recent protests would be considered breaching the new law.
But, on a personal level, I think this might be the moment where I start to really utilize the creative side of my role because when there are things that cannot be said directly, then you have to use metaphors or find a different angle to say the same thing. Just as a side note, I think this is already happening in Hong Kong now, given that the slogan that we have used throughout the whole movement last year has been banned. For example, people are using synonyms or acronyms to say the same line, which is actually very difficult to translate. Also, they have used graphics that resemble the morse code as a different way to convey the same message. Another example is that for the song, “Glory to Hong Kong,” people are using numbers to replace the lyrics; they are using the same melody but singing it in numbers. So, these are a few examples of how we are coping with the situation.
Personally, as a singer, songwriter, and creator, I am reflecting on how I can utilize this role to add to what the community is doing and, of course, given the situation of the pandemic we have had an escalation in infection cases recently in Hong Kong. So, live events are not possible. But, I am looking forward to the second half of this year and spending more time writing new songs and working on the creative side of things. I think that is probably where we have the most space given how very difficult it is to do anything physical right now.
I’d encourage anyone who is working in the creative domain, either inside or outside of Hong Kong, to get innovative because that is how we will fight the authorities. We must harness these soft powers because we cannot protest in the traditional way. Even though we are going up against these powerful authorities, they have limitations when people get flexible and adjust to the circumstances.
How can democracies pressure Beijing, whether it be to reverse course on Hong Kong or improve its human rights record generally, and support the pro-democracy movement?
I think that the answer is quite obvious: people need to have the right to decide the future of their countries. What we are seeing right now in the world is that there are different countries that are speaking out against the situation in China; its disregard for human rights, overriding universal values, and prioritization of economic growth and power. So, for those who don’t agree with what’s happening, then I think you should pressure your government to respond to this situation.
To be honest, it’s very difficult for me to answer this question right now because there is a huge gray area as to what I can actually say. But, what is common and universal is that people in power must be held accountable for their actions—whether it’s in Hong Kong, China, or other countries. I think if you are someone who believes that every person in the world should have equal rights, should have freedom of speech, should have the freedom to be who they are, then I think any person who has these liberties should speak up and fight for the freedoms of others. Because, if you don’t do it right now, then it could happen to you tomorrow. Just as what happened to the people of Hong Kong could happen to any people in the world.
What is the message that you hope this documentary gives to viewers and fans?
Obviously, this documentary draws a parallel between myself and Hong Kong. It’s the story of my family and how it relates to the history of Hong Kong. At its core, it’s about the fight for freedom and what we believe is the right thing to do at any given moment in history. So, hopefully, for someone who has no connection to Hong Kong or might not even know anyone from Hong Kong, the documentary can be a message that we are all interconnected; no one is fighting this fight alone, no one is facing these consequences alone. Something that happens in Hong Kong can have a “butterfly effect” that could happen to anyone, anywhere in the world.
I said this last year, and I still believe it right now, that this fight is greater than just fighting for Hong Kong’s freedom; it’s about preserving universal values that we all cherish in pursuit of democracy. And, although we don’t have it right now, we are still striving towards it. I hope the film is a source of inspiration to anyone, of any age, anywhere in the world because it is much larger than myself. This is a story of Hong Kong, and I’m just one of the participants of this fight. I have been inspired by the younger generations of Hong Kong to keep on the fight on and, hopefully, their willpower and strength will be seen in this documentary and influence others, young and old, around the world. Even if just one or two people who are inspired, that would be enough.