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Cheat sheet:

Denise Ho

Five songs that turned the Cantopop icon from pop singer to protestor

Sydney Opera House

In September 2014, tens of thousands occupied the streets of Hong Kong to protest for the right to vote in open elections – an agreement with Beijing many claim was ignored. It was named the “Umbrella Movement” after the umbrellas that protestors used to protect themselves against the tear gas and Hong Kong’s blistering heat.

One of the proudest voices behind Cantopop, Hong Kong’s dominant strain of pop music, became the unexpected face of the movement. 

“That was the moment we realised the one country, two systems, was gradually fading away from us,” said singer Denise Ho to the BBC. She joined the protestors on the streets and in tents occupying the bustling business districts of Central and Kowloon. Ho started to use her music as a political instrument, first by touring in her home of Hong Kong, and later staging a series of concerts on the city’s trams. 

Here are five of the songs that defined Ho’s career, both as an artist and as an activist. 

See Denise Ho speak with Zing Tsjeng at Antidote in ‘Pop & Politics in Hong Kong, Sunday 1 September.

‘尋愛’ (Anita Mui cover of Mariya Takeuchi’s ‘Plastic Love’)

While ‘Plastic Love’ wasn’t written by Ho (it’s a cover of a Mariya Takeuchi disco song), it defined a relationship between two artists that was at its essence political. Ho came to fame as a songwriter, live performer and one of the only female disciples of Anita Mui. Mui, affectionately referred to as ‘the Madonna of Hong Kong’, was herself a staunch pro-democracy advocate. In 1989 after the events at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Mui spoke publicly in support of the protestors and donated money to a clandestine group who were smuggling demonstrators to safety.

‘Louis and Lawrence’ (勞斯 萊斯 Lou si, loi si) (2005)

“To me, China’s most famous love story is also a gay story,” Ho told told the New Yorker. The song ‘Lou si, loi si’ (in English it is translated to ‘Louis and Lawrence’) is a retelling of the Jin Dynasty tale of the Butterfly Lovers. The tragedy tells of a girl who disguises herself as a boy for a chance to study at an academy in Hangzhou. There, she meets and falls in love with a young boy, whose parents refuse their marriage, causing him to die of depression. The girl is overcome by grief, and eventually joins her lover in the grave, and they reemerge as a pair of butterflies.

‘Wintersweet Blossoms in Siberia’ (2008)

On her first Mandarin-language album, Denise wrote the song ‘Wintersweet Blossoms in Siberia’ in tribute to Liu Xiaobo, the writer, university lecturer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Changhun, China who has long criticised one-party rule in China. 

In 2008 he was imprisoned for eleven years for his opposition to China's political and legal system. He was one of the original protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989, for which he served two years in prison, and an additional three in a labour camp for continued opposition. 

‘Raise the Umbrella’ (2014)

Songwriter Lo Hiu-pan wanted to write a song in reaction to the tear-gassing of protestors at the Occupy Central site in Hong Kong. He wrote ‘Raise the Umbrella’ in less than two days, uploaded it anonymously to YouTube, and contacted Denise Ho and singer Anthony Wong for support. Almost a week later Lo performed the song on stage with Ho and Wong. What started as a humble response to what he saw on the ground became the anthem for a movement. 

‘Millennia’s Faith Undone’ (2018)

Taiwan and Hong Kong share similar histories in their battle towards independence. In 2018, the Taiwanese black metal band Chthonic were set to play a festival organised by Ho in Hong Kong, but their visa applications were stalled. The band was founded by Freddy Lim, a politician in Taipei, founding leader of the pro-independence New Power Party, and lead singer of the band. Ho (under the stage name ‘HoCC’) sings on the song ‘Millennia’s Faith Undone Official’, over heavy metal laced with melodies drawn from First Nations Taiwanese culture. 

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