Hong Kong Politics

Singing the Umbrella Movement: Pop, Politics, and Protest

Written by Ivy Man. 

The Umbrella Movement, also known as the Umbrella Revolution, was a 79-day pro-democracy street occupation protest in Hong Kong. In the run-up to the protests, Beijing had stipulated that Hong Kong’s universal suffrage would be on Beijing’s terms, allowing only Communist Party approved candidates to run for office in the chief executive election. The Hong Kong people sensed that their calls for true universal suffrage would most likely be in vain. Many realised that the Special Administrative Region (SAR) would not have the expected degree of autonomy and democracy negotiated before the handover; and it would not be allowed to freely elect its chief executive by 2017 as promised.

Led by battlefront groups – including Occupy Central with Love and Peace and the Hong Kong federation of Students and Scholars – tens of thousands of people gathered together to occupy major shopping districts and business centers across the city. After several months of bitter confrontations, the occupations were cleared by the Hong Kong Police in December 2014. Large numbers of protester were arrested. And among that group were several well-known Canto-pop singers, artists who had actively participated in the pro-democracy movement.

Cantonese popular song, also commonly known as Canto-pop, is a popular music genre originating in Hong Kong. While the origins of Cantonese pop music can be traced back as far as the 1950s, it was not until the 1970s that Canto-pop became truly popular, first in Hong Kong but later in many overseas markets. During crucial socio-political moments, the genre has been used to express the feelings of Hong Kong’s people, particularly its young people. Many of Hong Kong’s key historical moments have been immortalised in Canto-pop. It has addressed the Sino-British talks in the Eighties, the June Fourth movement, the transfer of sovereignty negotiations in the Nineties, and of course the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.

The Umbrella Movement in fact created something of a vogue for political Canto-pop songs. In response to widespread feelings of patriotic dedication and political awareness, these Canto-pop songs were written to communicate hope, harmony and unity for the future. Amongst the songs recorded and released during the protests, Upholding an Umbrella is probably the most well-known. Sung by several prominent Canto-pop singers in Hong Kong, the song explicitly encouraged the protesters to persevere in times of darkness. The lyrics were co-written by Pan, the composer, and Lin Xi, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent Canto-pop lyricists. The song was performed by a large group of Hong Kong singers, including Anthony Wong, Denise Ho, Jay Tse, and national award-winning actress Deanie Ip. To avoid delay, the song was recorded and released within 48 hours.

As is typical of many Canto-pop songs, the song is a ballad. The lyrics of the song address the protest directly, and employ a rhyme scheme. In verse two, the rhyme ‘an’ is used to close the first, second and fourth lines, a feature reminiscent of Chinese classical poetry. As rhyme is not an obligatory feature of Canto-pop lyrics, this poetic idea perhaps adds to the songs lyrical power, invoking traditional Chinese culture behind fiercely political lyrics. The song certainly aroused a sense of solidarity among the Movement’s protesters and supporters. Recognized as the theme song for the Umbrella Movement, the song was not only sung numerous times by the protestors during the Movement, it was also played and shared widely on social media sites. The copyright of the song was not reserved, allowing the piece to be widely transmitted.

Blanket censorship made it impossible for those on the Chinese mainland to listen to the song. But Upholding an Umbrella was well-received in Hong Kong. Aside from the high click rate online, the song was also nominated by the public and voted for as the ‘most liked’ song of 2014 during the Ultimate Song Chart Awards Presentation 2015.

Two and a half years after the Umbrella Movement ended, protesters still find themselves at risk of prosecution and the song continues to play on social media. There has been a question mark hanging over Canto-pop in recent years. It’s relevance has been questioned. and some have claimed that the genre is simply dying out. What happens in the coming years is uncertain, but Canto-pop’s role in Hong Kong’s history is clear. The genre has exceeded expectations, becoming more than just a popular music genre. It has provoked thought, sung for the people of Hong Kong, and time and time again has held a mirror to the SAR’s socio-political sentiments and local identity.

Dr Ivy Man is a senior lecturer in College of Professional and Continuing Education, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She has been an invited speaker at popular music seminars organized by the Hong Kong Education Bureau. Her research interests include Chinese popular music, Cultures of the East & West and Media censorship. Image Credit: CC by Studio Incendo/Flickr.