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Local celebrities take bigger risks to support social movements

By Wing Chan & Karen Yu

One week into the 79-day-long occupation movement for universal suffrage, a young woman wearing black rimmed glasses and a simple T-shirt took to the makeshift main stage in what became known as Umbrella Square. The theme of the rally that night was resisting violence. The mood in Admiralty was defiant but sombre – just a day before, peaceful protesters had been attacked by anti-occupy elements in Mong Kok.

The young woman did not display the trappings of a star, she was not made up and did not have a retinue of dancers by her side. But there was no mistaking her confidence and stage presence as she condemned the violence and commended the courage of Hong Kong’s young people before introducing a new song.

“This song is called Hold Up Your Umbrella. We hope those who have clear consciences can stay strong. This song belongs to all Hong Kong people,” said singer Denise Ho Wan-see, an outspoken supporter of the Umbrella Movement and a founder of Hong Kong Shield, a group of people from the culture and arts sector supporting Occupy.

It is not the first time she has spoken out on social issues; Ho has been active in fighting for gay rights since she came out as a lesbian to the general public in 2012. But in taking such a high-profile stand in supporting and participating in the Umbrella Movement, and being arrested when the Admiralty site was cleared, Ho has become Hong Kong’s most prominent celebrity-activist.

Although few artists have gone as far as Ho in supporting what was an overtly political struggle, she is not alone in expressing sympathy and solidarity with the students and other protesters. Singer Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, actress Deanie Yip Tak-han, actors Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Chapman To Man-chat and Stephen Au Kam-tong are among the others.

HOCC on stage
Local singer Denise Ho Wan-see speaks on stage

And while it is not the first time celebrities have spoken up on social and political issues in Hong Kong, artists have never had so much to lose in terms of losing jobs, sponsorship deals and even the right to perform in the lucrative mainland market.

For some performers, like Denise Ho, that seems to be a price worth paying but it is worth asking whether celebrities can really make an impact on political issues.

Karen Man Tsz-tung, a 21-year-old business student and part-time event management assistant, has been a Denise Ho fan for nearly three years. Man says she used to be ignorant of current affairs and politics. She rarely read newspapers and found political issues to be too complex and irrelevant to her daily life.

That all changed during Occupy Movement. Reading Denise Ho’s posts on Facebook and Instagram every day and watching her interviews on television, Man began to take an interest in current affairs. She even went to the Mong Kok occupied area to support the protesters.

Of all Ho’s interviews in the media, Man was most impressed by her appearance on the RTHK programme Face to Face. “When the host asked if she would be afraid of the consequences [of joining the protest] on her career, she replied that being a singer was just her occupation…She is like saying, we are all Hong Kong people,” recalls Man.

Enoch Cheung, a second year chemistry student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was a member of the university’s Class Boycott Committee and frequently went to Admiralty. He thinks the presence of celebrities in the movement was positive because they could draw public attention. However, Cheung adds the impact of celebrities is limited and they were not the only people who could mobilise support. “Being an artist is just [one kind of] occupation. If a doctor went on stage, she’d be able to influence doctors,” he says.

Cheung thinks people were more concerned about how the movement could achieve true universal suffrage and police violence against protesters than they were about celebrities chanting slogans on stage.

While this may be true for participants and supporters of the movement, there is little doubt that celebrities do play a role in raising awareness and getting the attention of the general public. In October, screen legend Chow Yun-fat’s response to rumours that he had been blacklisted by the Chinese government for supporting the students went viral. Chow’s simple answer, “I’ll just make less then” struck a chord and got people talking about whether and what Hongkongers should be willing to give up to achieve their ideals.

Gloria Chan Kwong-wai, 39, a veteran social campaigner, thinks celebrities can help transmit political messages effectively to politically apathetic groups such as homemakers and middle-aged people as they are appealing and charismatic. “People know something is happening because they know the celebrities participating in it,” she says.

Chan says on most occasions, organisers of social campaigns invite celebrities to be ambassadors or represent their cause after evaluating if their images are in line with the messages to be conveyed and the nature of the campaigns.

Apart from joining the protest in person, celebrities can also advocate causes they believe in through their works. Hold Up Your Umbrella, the song Denise Ho and Anthony Wong Yiu-ming sang on the Admiralty stage on  October 4, was written by Pan and the renowned lyricist Albert Leung Wai-man, better known as Lin Xi. The song was played repeatedly in the occupied areas and became one of the anthems of the movement.

Anthony Fung Ying-him, director of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says traditionally, the songs that are popular in Hong Kong tend to be love songs that depict romantic struggles. However, political and protest songs have become more prevalent in recent years.

Fung thinks anthems like Hold up the Umbrella can have a huge psychological influence on protesters when they are played at protest events as they etch unique rhythms and sentimental lyrics into the minds of protesters. When the crowds sing these songs together, they are creating a collective memory. “People remember the movement not because they stand or sit there for a long time, but the collective actions like singing,” he says.

Hong Kong celebrities have stood together to sing purposely written songs in support of democracy before the Umbrella Movement. The 1989 Concert for Democracy in China, held in front of a packed audience at the Happy Valley racecourse has already entered Hong Kong’s collective memory. Back then, the entertainment industry, like Hong Kong itself, was united in its support for the student protesters in Beijing. Among the star-studded line-up for the concert were Cantopop legends like Anita Mui and Andy Lau, and actors who have since become staunchly establishment figures like Jackie Chan and Liza Wang.

Compared to 1989, the costs of taking a high-profile stance in favour of democracy are now much higher. While Hong Kong’s golden age of film and pop music has passed, the entertainment market in the Mainland continues to grow. In 2000, China’s total box office receipts were Rmb4.8 billion, in 2014 the figure was Rmb29.6 billion.

Stephen Au Kam-tong, a 50-year-old actor and director, is a contracted artist with Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) and one of the celebrities who is consistently outspoken on social and political affairs.

Au says that although there are no rules restricting the freedom of speech in artists’ contracts, TVB has sent mass mails and memos to “strongly advise” artists not to talk publicly about their political stances too much and not to accept interview requests from the Next Media Group.

Au is not afraid of pressure from TVB and he dismisses suggestions that celebrities should stay out of politics. To Au, artists are obliged to understand society as they are Hong Kong citizens. “An artist should have a mission to care about society and to criticise politics,” he says. “I realised that on the first day I entered the industry.”

What worries him more is how the media and the public interpret his words. As celebrities attract media attention, they have to be more cautious when commenting on social issues. Sammy Leung Chi-kin, a well-known DJ at Commercial Radio learnt this the hard way.

Leung made a speech on the stage during the anti national education movement in 2012. He later discovered that media reports of what he had said made him sound more radical than he actually was. It was only then that he realised that celebrities have to mind what they say as their words can be distorted or cherry-picked to favour the political leanings of media organisations.

As Hong Kong becomes increasingly polarised, demonising those in the opposing camp is common in both the conservative and pan-democratic sides of the divide. “I have a lot to say on the Umbrella Movement. But if they [my thoughts] are expressed in other channels, they may turn into something different,” says Leung.

Leung says he will keep saying what he believes is right on his own radio show Good Morning King rather than through other media. But what artists may fear even more than media distortion is public expectations. A political stance can now become a social label.

Even those celebrities who do not have a conspicuous stance or claim to be neutral cannot escape; people will expect them to take a side. “Everything is like either in black or white. There isn’t any grey zone,” says Leung.

He explains reporters will sometimes call the artists and ask what their stance on a particular issue is, pushing them into a certain political camp. “Artists are frightened. They cannot stay neutral because everyone is forcing them to take sides,” he says “When they are afraid, they step back.”

This is another reason why many celebrities are reluctant to reveal their position even if they have a thorough understanding of the issues.

Apart from the media and the public, Leung has fallen foul of mainland authorities.To perform in the Mainland, artists are required to have a certificate of approval from the Ministry of Culture in advance. Originally, Leung was going be the master of ceremonies in a beauty contest organised by the Shenzhen television station CUTV in December. But the job was cancelled because Leung could not get the required approval.

It so happened that Leung’s name was one of those on a list of many Hong Kong artists which was circulated on social media in October. The list was believed to be a blacklist of pro-democratic artists who had been backing the Umbrella Movement.

The mainland entertainment market is now far more lucrative than Hong Kong. CUHK’s Anthony Fung says the rise of the Internet has made the production and sale of CDs less profitable, so most artists rely on live performances as a major source of income. Those who support democratic causes may have to sacrifice their income.

Yet for some artists, like Denise Ho and Stephen Au, the spirit of “I’ll make less then” means it is a price worth paying to say what they believe needs to be said – and their fans, as well as the media will be hanging onto every word.

Edited by Jeffrey Loa