Protest in pop culture: Hong Kong’s resistance

Amid mainland China's crackdowns on Hong Kong democracy in recent years, the city's arts and culture scene provides respite and courage.

In many liberal democracies like Australia, we can be assured of our freedom to publicly express dissent. We are at liberty to voice grievances with our elected representatives and organise mass protests on the streets with mild fear of retaliation. Despite their shortcomings, these moderate securities are not an option for citizens in other parts of the world. In Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China that has clashed with the mainland multiple times, it’s a completely different story.

In 2019, the city made international headlines due to a series of pro-democracy protests, triggered by a controversial bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. The protests were characterised by various activist tactics, including mass rallies in public areas, boycotts of mainland-backed businesses, and extreme police brutality to shut down protesters. These factors placed questions about the state of Hong Kong’s democracy front and centre of the international stage.

However, following the two-year setback of COVID lockdowns, the city’s dissent has been muffled by new COVID regulations that ban gatherings of more than four people, and the enactment of the national security law, which makes it easier for police to prosecute protesters. 

What might a person turn to for comfort in a city with such tightening repression? 

The answer, in part, is Hong Kong’s emerging arts and culture.

Prior to its administration under China, Hong Kong was a cultural powerhouse in Asia. Names like Wong Kar-Wai, Bruce Lee, Tony Leung, and Anita Mui emerged from its blossoming creative industry. Hong Kong studies professor Yui-Wai Chu describes the optimism that characterised this period as a “northbound imaginary”; the idea that Hong Kong’s thriving creative industry could positively influence China with its intrinsically diverse core values. Unfortunately, such optimism was short-lived. 

As Hong Kong’s best and brightest crossed the border to pursue better career opportunities in China in 2003, the industry entered an era of what political scientist Ngok Ma describes as “mainlandisation”. This entailed the “blurring of the physical, social, cultural, and psychological border between mainland China and Hong Kong”. The city’s vibrant cultural identity, once an unstoppable force in Asia, began to wane.

But the seeds of resistance were planted even as Chinese culture began to encroach upon Hong Kong’s creative industry – seeds that would grow alongside the city’s pro-democracy movement. As the state cracked down on overt forms of protest in 2019, Hong Kong’s creative industry experienced a resurgence.

Street graphic designs and the iconic Lady Liberty Hong Kong, based on a demonstrator who suffered from an eye injury after having her safety goggles damaged by a bean bag round, could be easily found all over Hong Kong

The Cantopop scene shifted from heartbreak to protest as more people shared the sentiments of wanting to hold onto this cultural identity. One example is the YouTubers-turned-musicians Trial & Error, who gained popularity around the same time the new national security law made headlines. 

While the band believes in communicating their ideas through their work instead of overtly expressing their political stance, a second layer of meaning may often be decoded from their music, such as their chart-topping song ‘Hai Gum Sin La’ (‘係咁先喇‘)

The song’s chorus can roughly be translated into, “I am taking my leave first, let’s play again next time. Goodbye, see you next time, if there is even next time”. Although, on the surface, the lyrics describe someone leaving a party early, they confirmed in a BBC News interview that the song also alluded to Hong Kong’s recent mass exodus.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, the founding trio said that they find it “thrilling” to navigate the grey areas of censorship. Neo Yau Hawk-sau, one of the founders, said: “The grey area is where we survive. If we lose this space, between the red lines, then we quit. Or we die.” 

Another group, Mirror, also rose to fame as the Chinese government tightened its grip on Hong Kong. Like Trial & Error, the boy band avoided explicitly stating their political leaning, but has somehow become an “ideological canvas” as they are increasingly viewed as an emblem of modern Hong Kong’s identity. 

Their song ‘Warrior’ particularly resonates with people in the city, such as Gwyneth Ho, an opposition politician and former journalist who has been detained by police, and faces a life sentence under the National Security Law. Ho has previously referenced the song’s lyrics on social media, specifically lines which can be translated to “Death is the worst thing that can happen, and I won’t avoid it”. 

Popular culture continues to prove itself as a bridge between the political and the personal, especially in democracies as tightly controlled as Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s creative industry evidences that resistance continues to exist not only in overt and physical forms of protests, but subtler modes of artistic and cultural expression, despite all odds.