Comunicar Journal Blog

Multi-temporalities of Protest Songs in Hong Kong (an ongoing project)

Plenty of research has highlighted the significance of music in collective actions for evoking and reifying aspirations and grievances, as well as consolidating solidarity among activists. This paper will contribute to the literature on pop music in protest movements by analyzing the meanings of three Cantopop (Cantonese pop music) songs in the construction of a collective Hong Kong identity during the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

Through the perspective of the historical and cultural studies of music, I start my research project on Hong Kong’s protest music in the recent decades, their spatial, temporal and social implications. Specifically, I fathom how music/songs have projected an imagined Hong Kong among the people in a particular historical timeframe.

To begin with, the Umbrella Movement in 2014 sets milestone: contradictions and connections between the songs <Under the Lion Rock>,  <Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies>, and <Hoist the Umbrella>. Tracing their respective historical contexts and impacts on Hong Kong society, while engaging with theoretical discussions on the function of pop songs in protests, this paper will unpack how the three songs (re)define three spatial registers: the Umbrella Movement, the Hong Kong society and the generational location. The historical epochs giving rise to these songs and the contradictory ethos embodied by them were (re)imagined and (re)articulated in the Umbrella Movement protest.

<Under the Lion Rock> is the theme song of a TV series that originated in the 1970’s. It manifests the so-called “Lion Rock spirit” supposedly shared by all walks of life in Hong Kong. This was an ethos interpellating recent immigrants from mainland China and their children to work hard for the prosperity of the city. <Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies> was composed and sung by the local band Beyond in the 1980’s, the golden age of both Hong Kong’s economic development and its entertainment industry. This song expresses the desire for freedom and the courage to dream. <Hoist the Umbrella> came out of the Umbrella Movement and is sung by a group of pro-movement pop singers.

October 28, 2014 marked the full month since the outpouring of Hong Kong people taking part in the Umbrella Movement after the police’s use of tear gas to disperse the initial protesters. On this date, amid an ocean of mobile phone flashlights and fervent chants of “I want genuine universal suffrage,” the three songs were performed in Hong Kong’s central business district, which had become one of the occupation sites of the Movement. These three songs registered the past, present and future of Hong Kong. Together, they epitomized the trajectory of Hong Kong people’s identity, from refugees to homo economicus to……. us past colonial ideology and the myth of economic evolution and the in-situ re-interpreted and re-defined of the past “memory” in this Umbrella Movement. The de-politicized song <Under the Lion Rocks> which advocated grass-root citizens stop complaining but endeavour head to toe, was endowed with a post-colonial signature and movement-specific interpretation of the keywords “complain”, “on the same boat” and so on. In the same vein, the <Vast Ocean and Sky> was transformed from an autobiographic account of a legendary band to a collective declaration of democratic pursuit. Such re-contextualization of songs was eventually concretised in the <Hoist the Umbrella>.