Hong Kong – As riot police fired tear gas on protesters at a massive Hong Kong rally on June 12, pop star Denise Ho made use of her celebrity status.
Hundreds of people were attempting to escape into a nearby building, but the narrow doorway only allowed a few people to squeeze through at a time.
“It was actually a very dangerous scene because the police were on all three sides of the road,” Ho told Al Jazeera. “The building just had one door open so it was like a thousand people trying to get into that one door.
“It was pretty dangerous.”
Attempting to defuse the situation, Ho approached the police lines alongside the aides of several pro-democracy politicians and attempted to negotiate.
Ho believes police likely recognised her.
The 42-year-old singer, popularly known as “HOCC”, has been a fixture in Hong Kong’s protest scene since the Umbrella Movement brought the city to a standstill for almost three months in 2014.
Ho and Anthony Wong, also a singer, are two of the few Hong Kong elites outside of the legal and business community who have been willing to talk about divisive political issues.
Others, fearing repercussions from China, have been less vocal.
Ho and Wong have both been blacklisted in China for taking part in the 2014 democracy movement, but as the deeply unpopular piece of legislation allowing for criminal extradition to China brought people onto the streets in their millions, the two of them were once again on the front lines.
Both singers took part in the vigil to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square and also sang – spontaneously – at the end of the anti-extradition march on June 9 that drew one million people, according to organiser estimates.
They also both marched in the largest protest in Hong Kong’s history on June 16, when nearly two million people took to the streets.
Under the terms of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, the city was promised autonomy for 50 years under the “one country two systems” formula, which gives them the kind of freedoms and civil rights not found on the mainland.
And, while most of the population is ethnically Chinese, they are fiercely proud of their Cantonese identity with its own dialect and traditions.
Fear of the extradition bill and China’s legal system has prompted record numbers of ordinary Hong Kong people to protest – many for the first time ever – but at the top, many have kept quiet.
“There’s the whole atmosphere in Hong Kong society where most people … benefit from the China market so they will just say silent,” Ho said. “For celebrities, it’s the same. If you speak up, you would probably be banned in China.”
Ho estimates that she has lost several million Hong Kong dollars after her music was removed from sale in China and she was blacklisted. Both she and Wong said they have also lost opportunities in Hong Kong as well as corporate sponsorship from local and international brands because of the fear of being associated with those critical of the mainland government.
I’m a civilian first and as a Hong Kong citizen I shouldn’t keep quiet.
ANTHONY WONG, ARTIST
Born in Hong Kong, Ho spent part of her childhood and university years in Montreal, Quebec. She previously told La Presse, a Montreal newspaper, that the province’s 1995 referendum on independence from Canada, which narrowly lost, had a profound influence on her.
After her return to Hong Kong, her singing career took off in the early 2000s when she became a major Cantopop star. Ho’s first major foray into activism came a decade later after she publicly came out as a lesbian in 2012.
It was likely only a matter of time until she began to speak out in support of Hong Kong political causes.
“The day that I decided to speak up and then went in the front lines with the students … that wasn’t a careless decision,” Ho said of her decision to join the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
“I knew what I was doing and I knew what would come after, that but sometimes you just have to – there are some priorities in life that you have to put ahead of your personal career.”
Celebrities were not always so reluctant to get involved in politics in Hong Kong, says Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies.
After Tiananmen Square, known locally as June 4, many local celebrities came out in support of students and protesters.
“For at least six months after June 4, 1989, the majority of the singers and movie stars and so forth they held various concerts or public events in support of the students … and to put pressure on Beijing,” Lam said.
Things began to change within three or four years, when the mainland and Hong Kong markets became increasingly intertwined.
“This reflects a general truth … that is Hong Kong is now totally dependent on the China market,” Lam said.
Wong, 57, who made a name for himself first in a 1980s singing duo but now runs a production house in addition to his solo singing career, has become another semi-cautionary tale for local celebrities dabbling in politics.
Before he joined Hong Kong’s democracy protests in 2014, 60 percent of his work was in China. That work and much more dried up after his activism, but Wong says it was his civic duty to take part.
“I don’t think I have a choice because I’m a civilian first and as a Hong Kong citizen I shouldn’t keep quiet,” he said of his involvement in the Umbrella Movement. Wong said by crossing the line he gave up on a management contract under negotiation at the time with a Chinese company.
Ho and Wong are outliers, however, in another way. They both came out as gay in 2012, still a relatively rare occurrence in both Hong Kong and China’s music scene, and they have since campaigned for LGBT rights in the conservative city through their organisation Big Love Alliance.
Wong said it was likely that his work with the LGBT community informed his political choices.
“You can’t just fight for one group and not be concerned about the other,” he said. “One thing leads to another.”
‘Music has its power in social movement’
Since then, Wong has become more actively involved in the democracy movement, using his social media accounts to share information. He recently recorded a song to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.
Being cut off from China, however, has not been entirely bad for Wong. He has instead been pushed to be more creative, to capture international attention and now tours outside of Asia.
He said he was now inspired by artists like Sigur Ros and Bjork, who have both made a name for the tiny nation of Iceland.
Wong said both he and Ho have been criticised for dabbling in politics as singers, with many saying entertainers should not perform at Hong Kong protests.
“Since the Umbrella Movement, a lot of people are debating if people should sing [at protests and ask] ‘Why do you sing during rallies or social activism?’ They think singing won’t change the world, it will numb people,” he said. “I don’t believe it. I believe music has its power in social movement.”
With more protests planned for Wednesday and a major rally on July 1, Ho and Wong will continue to participate and, in the months ahead, encourage young people to register to vote.