What’s in a song? Maybe a subtle protest

When some 1,000 people at Hong Kong University spontaneously burst into a patriotic ditty, they might just have been hitting back at the localists

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 December, 2016, 12:59am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 December, 2016, 1:07am

You are what you listen to. Ask someone about his or her favourite song and the answer is likely to say something about that person.

So it’s instructive that pro-democracy barrister Alan Leong Ka-kit says the most inspiring song for him is Frank Sinatra’s kitschy My Way. Personally, I am more partial to Sid Vicious’ version, but that’s just me. Leong’s fellow University of Hong Kong alumnus Albert Chau Wai-lap, however, prefers My Motherland.

The occasion was a lecture by Lung Yingtai, a former Taiwanese cultural minister and now visiting scholar at HKU. Intriguingly enough, no one offered to sing the Sinatra hit. But about 1,000 teachers and students at the lecture broke out in a spontaneous rendition of the entire patriotic song after Lung asked Chau, who is a vice president at Baptist University, to hum a few notes.

The unplanned display of nationalism led to some controversy, including a commentary from the People’s Daily and heated discussions on the internet.

Spontaneous rendition of ‘red song’ at HKU talk prompts debate on patriotism

Post-colonial Hong Kong is funny that way. It’s more politically acceptable to sing God Save the Queen and wave the Union Jack on the HKU campus than to sing the national anthem. This is despite the substantial presence of mainland students there, who are presumably much more patriotic than their local counterparts.

Journalist Ching Cheong, a HKU graduate who was once jailed on the mainland, said back in his days in the 1970s, My Motherland could be sung on campus without harassment from the colonial government.

“There was true freedom on campus in those days,” he was quoted as saying. “You can’t blame the young ones nowadays for missing the colonial era.”

As if the young knew what it was like! Which colonial era was this? The one where former home affairs secretary Tsang Tak-sing was denounced by his British schoolmaster and jailed for handing out anti-colonial leaflets outside his school? We have yet to jail someone for advocating independence.

But maybe Ching is right. Try speaking out against localism and independence at HKU student union gatherings, and you risk being ostracised and denounced as a wumao, a Beijing stooge, or much worse if you happen to be from the mainland.

Maybe the spontaneous mass singing was just a display of nostalgia. It looks more like a civilised act of protest.