The Umbrella Movement Playlist

Stirring, profane, always authentic: Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests have developed a rich musical culture.

Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrators clearly have a knack for spectacle. But what many outsiders might not realize is that the Umbrella Movement also has its own soundtrack. Pop stars and indie bands have taken part in the protests from the start, singing about the demand for universal suffrage, encouraging civil disobedience, and condemning police use of teargas. And because Hong Kong’s Cantonese culture boasts a rich tradition of earthy invective, the lyrics don’t mince words. (In the photo above, a pro-democracy protester plays guitar on a street in Central on Sept. 29.)

Perhaps the most popular protest anthem is "Under a Vast Sky," a ’90s rock ballad from the band Beyond. Over the years it’s become a fixture of Hong Kong’s fertile protest culture. Demonstrators have a particular affinity for Beyond because of the band’s highly political lyrics and tragic aura. (Lead singer Wong Ka-kui suffered a tragic death in 1993 after falling from stage in Japan.) When demonstrators get in the mood for a mass sing-along, this is often the tune they choose.

Forgive me for being wild and yearning for freedom
Yet fearing someday I might fall down
To give up one’s dream
It isn’t hard for anyone
It would be fine if someday there’s only you & me….

"Do You Hear the People Sing?" from the musical Les Misérables is another favorite — though the demonstrators prefer it with lyrics in Cantonese, of course.

Both the Umbrella Movement and Les Misérables began with student uprisings. Hoping for a less tragic ending than their theatrical counterparts, Hong Kong protesters sing with outstretched arms swaying. Illuminated mobile phone screens glow in place of lighters.

Hong Kong Canto-pop stars Anthony Wong and Denise Ho have joined the throngs of protesters at Occupy encampments. The duo led a dozen local musicians on a polished studio track, "Hold Up the Umbrella," that they released online in support of the movement.

Wong and Ho dedicated the song to "all of you who have devoted yourselves so selflessly, with or without an umbrella that night, or many nights in the rain. To all young people who contributed to the fate of our city with no regards to your own futures, all of you who have made Hong Kong more beautiful, you are not alone."

Sit-in in a sea of people. Not that we aren’t afraid
But we fear for what would become of us if the status quo remains
This night is that point in life
When we’re more worried about not speaking our minds.

Standing at the forefront, our courage can’t be taken away
The more afraid we are, the dimmer our future looks
Who would have wanted to see through absurdity?
But you kept your eyes open in clouds of teargas.

Let’s hold up our umbrellas, let’s support this cause
Even against fear, we’re not on our own, agreed?
Let’s hold up our umbrellas, raise our hands up to support
Together we fight for what we deserve; are you afraid?
Even in the midst of a storm, we’re still as determined
Umbrellas are blossoming like flowers
They don’t wither or fall
Remember tonight for the days to come
We remain calm in face of distress

If we miss this night in our life
We’re afraid to lose the cry of our free speech forever

When Hong Kong Police deployed tear gas against demonstrators on Sept. 28, a group of Hong Kong ninth-graders responded almost instantly with a song of their own, "Teargas." Big Boyz Club, as they called themselves, declared: "We hope that the song can encourage people in Hong Kong and students who love freedom and justice. Teargas is not the only tearjerker, we are moved to tears by the unity and helping spirits of Hong Kong citizens."

Over the past weekend, Occupy Central encampments found themselves under assault by disgruntled residents and gang-affiliated thugs. In Mong Kok, men overturned supplies and tarps, harassed protesters, and physically assaulted journalists.

In response to mounting tension, the protesters have developed a novel musical method for soothing nerves. Whenever someone tries to provoke an argument, the crowd begins clapping rhythmically and singing "Happy Birthday" to drown out their abusers.

The "Happy Birthday" tactic emerged by accident. When a protester grabbed a loudspeaker to call for calm, the device began blaring a recorded version of the tune, and members of the crowd joined in spontaneously:

Hong Kong’s Cantonese-language culture is notorious for its rapidly evolving slang and rich traditions of profanity. So it’s no surprise that one local netizen was quick to come up with an exceptionally vulgar music video in support of the protesters. "If I Call You a Stupid Dick, I’m Afraid You’d Be Mad," has since gone viral on social media.

David Cheang, 26, who works in the advertising industry, released the song on YouTube on Oct. 5. He told Apple Daily that the song is aimed at Hong Kongers who blindly oppose the Umbrella Movement without really knowing why. "Sorry I’m not a very polite person," he says in his introduction to the video. "So there’re a lot of swear words in this song. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to leave me ‘fuck you’ comments."

The Cantonese phrase on-gao ("stupid dick") can be translated literally as "an erection that happens at the wrong time." Netizens use the term to describe an extremely dumb person, and it is often written as "on9" (the numeral nine is pronounced gao in Cantonese).

In a bar, I listen to your rants
You said there’s no fucking point in what the Occupy Central people are doing
They’re causing fucking inconvenience to businesses. You can’t fucking get a ride on public transport
Hurry up, fucking arrest them all!
 I asked if you’d been to any of the protest sites
(He said) I watch TVB from dawn till dusk everyday
(Look at the students) they’ve fucking messed up Hong Kong. I feel fucking sorry for the police
Hurry up, fucking arrest them all!
(I thought to myself) my friend you’re a stupid dick
But if I tell it to your face you’d be mad
Your bullshit is polluting the earth
My friend, I’m fucking sad
My friend, you’re a stupid dick
I didn’t say it because I wouldn’t be able to take my words back
If only you can redeem yourself by eating shit
But then I look at you; I don’t know how much shit you need to eat to redeem yourself.

Don’t tell me that it’s normal to have supporters and opposition
Hey, conscience and violence are at war right now
You have no belief, please step aside
Don’t be in the way when the dream is alive….

As tensions mounted in Mong Kok and Admiralty over the weekend, My Little Airport, one of Hong Kong’s most popular indie rock acts, performed at a shopping mall in eastern Kowloon.

During the Friday and Saturday performances, singer-songwriter Ah P performed a topical version of one of his hit songs, "Please Don’t Sell Flags in Sham Shui Po," with new lyrics cursing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and pro-Beijing loyalists.

The band’s music is known for chronicling the tribulations of Hong Kong life, dull office jobs, and doomed romances. But in songs such as "Young Guys of Ngau Tau Kok" and "Otaku Girl, Take to the Street," Ah P’s lyrics also explore social injustice and encourage public participation in mass protests.

Other My Little Airport songs are more overtly political. "Donald Tsang, Please Die" is addressed to Hong Kong’s previous chief executive. "I Love the Country But Not the Party" tries to wrest the patriotic high ground away from the Chinese Communist Party:

There are signs that the protests may now be ebbing. But even if the demonstrators don’t get everything that they hope for, the musical culture they’ve created is sure to live on.

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