“Denise Ho: Becoming the Song” documents the recent years in the life of a Hong Kong singer and political activist who has put her life and career on the line for a simple idea: democracy.
She should be better known in the United States and elsewhere, and perhaps this new documentary from Sue Williams will help change that — and help Americans see how alarming the Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong has become.
For those who are unfamiliar with Ho, you should know this: Although from Hong Kong, she spent many of her teen years in Montreal, where her parents were working temporarily. When she and her family returned to Hong Kong in 1996, she won a singing contest and eventually became friends with Anita Mui, a Hong Kong diva who was the Asian version of Madonna. Mui mentored Ho, and then two became quite close. Mui, by the way, was the star of the musical movement known as Cantopop, which is basically pop songs sung in the Cantonese language.
When Mui died of cervical cancer in 2003, Ho decided she would need to reinvent herself. And she did, with elaborate concerts and a growing popularity not only in Hong Kong but also in mainland China.
Before long, Ho became more outspoken, joining fellow pop singer Anthony Wong in coming out as gay. And the two of them eventually became the public face of the Umbrella Movement of 2014. The movement and the resulting protests erupted after mainland China introduced an extradition law that Hong Kong residents thought would lead to the disappearance of activists who were lobbying for freedoms and rights to choose their own leaders. Indeed, the activists had reasons to be concerned. People, like bookshop owners, were beginning to disappear. And dangerous ideas were increasingly frowned upon by mainland China.
The Umbrella Movement got its name from the protesters’ use of umbrellas to help repel the tear gas being fired by police upon peaceful demonstrators. You might have seen some of that lately in the United States.
At any rate, Ho put herself in the front line of these protests, with the hope that police would recognize her and de-escalate any violent response. It worked somewhat, but in the end, Ho was arrested during an extended sit-in in downtown Hong Kong. And once she was released, she was permanently banned from having any concerts in mainland China. Her music was banned, too, eliminating an estimated 80 percent of her income.
She crowdsourced one last Hong Kong concert in 2016, the Dear Friend concert, but since then, no venue in Hong Kong will let her perform. Instead, she has taken her protest songs to Canada, Britain and the United States. She has also appeared before the United Nations and the U.S. Congress, but you wouldn’t know it from the lack of reaction by the international community.
Part of the problem is this: China is a political and economic behemoth, and it appears that few Western governments will take a firm stand against the increasing crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms. The same can be said for Western businesses. Various brands who used Ho’s image in advertising have dumped her, simply because they don’t want to anger the giant Chinese market.
All of this has had a devastating effect on Ho and her music. But she continues to perform in smaller venues to enthusiastic audiences. “As long as you do something,” she says, “people around you will feel it.” And that seems to be the message here: that Ho will persist.
“Denise Ho: Becoming the Song” is streaming as part of the Austin Film Society’s virtual offerings. To view the documentary, go to austinfilm.org/virtual-screenings.