Life as a rainbow: Canto-pop singer Denise Ho on coming out
Canto-pop singer Denise Ho says coming out as a lesbian has been liberating, both personally and professionally
"You have to strengthen yourself before you can project anything."
Canto-pop singer Denise Ho Wan-sze is talking about her growing success in the Mando-pop market in recent years, which she says has given her more freedom and flexibility when making music back in Hong Kong.
However, the same can also be said about other areas of Ho's life. After becoming the first Hong Kong celebrity to come out as a lesbian last November, the 36-year-old has received unprecedented attention from the media. Although she says there haven't been many changes to her private life - her friends and family have long known about her sexual orientation - Ho feels that now that she is out publicly, she must tread carefully as any misstep may affect the way that the public perceives the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
So by coming out, Ho has truly strengthened herself in unexpected ways. "I think the public has been really positive about what I have done. It is not about whether one supports LGBT rights, but about gaining respect by standing up for yourself and minorities," says Ho, a founding member of LGBT rights organisation Big Love Alliance, which also counts as core members Canto-pop singer Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, and lawmakers Cyd Ho Sau-lan and Raymond Chan Chi-chuen.
Ho jokes that as far as being an activist goes, she is still just "a kindergarten student" but her sifu (teacher), the late Canto-pop diva Anita Mui Yim-fong, inspired her latest musical projects. "I have a long way to go, but it's a responsibility I want to shoulder. My sifu wouldn't say that because she was an artist, she didn't care about social issues - whatever happens in society concerns us all. I think Hong Kong people are slowly becoming aware of what is happening. We're not as free as we used to be, and we need to fight for ourselves."
Questions have been raised over whether Ho risks becoming stereotyped, and her music and outspoken stance on social issues - such as the anti-national education movement last year and the controversy involving a primary school teacher's foul language - in danger of being overlooked because of her sexual orientation.
Although it wasn't intentional, her second Mandarin album Coexistence - released three months after she came out - was widely interpreted as a statement on LGBT issues. Some even linked the cover art featuring a colourful children's playground to the colours of the rainbow, the symbol of the LGBT movement.
"I didn't think about this when I was making it, and I don't see how people could perceive my music in a negative way," Ho says. "But when your music comes out, it is no longer yours … the copyright is yours, of course, but it becomes public property. If 100 people listen to it, there will be 100 different interpretations of it."
But Ho is not worried about being stereotyped - not for her personality, or for her work. "To me, my creative work is my life - the audience can read my life like an open book because that's what inspired my work."
Ho cited a TED talk in which Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the novel Eat, Pray, Love, said that in ancient times, the word "genius" referred to the guiding spirit behind creativity, instead of a particularly clever person. "It's the environment that inspires us to create - [artists] are like messengers, chosen to deliver messages through our music. Creation comes not from an individual, but from the energy surrounding us."
The creative energy surrounding Ho has led to the recording of a new album, which will be launched at two concerts in October. The as-yet untitled album is a tribute to Mui, who died of cancer in 2003. When Ho was growing up in Montreal, one of her teenage antics involved driving six hours to Toronto to catch a concert by Mui - and presenting her with 3,000 paper cranes she had made.
Ho eventually became a back-up singer for Mui and was featured on the diva's Larger Than Life album. Ho says she owes Mui a great deal, which is why her upcoming album - featuring a selection of Mui's songs - was the hardest to record since her debut EP, First, from 2001. The process not only gave her a chance to stroll down memory lane, but also to reinvent herself.
"I seldom cover Mui's songs in public, but it has been 10 years [since she died] so I think it's time. But it was torturous to go through her back catalogue and choose the songs. There were so many memories and emotions," she says. "But by doing new arrangements of her music, I feel as if I have given it new life, in my own style. It was a very sentimental and moving project for me."
Ho says that in paying tribute to Mui, she needed to strike a balance between covering the hits that fans would like and the songs that had special meaning for her as she was growing up. "I didn't want to make this only a personal project, but also to rejuvenate Anita's legacy and introduce her music to a younger audience."
The "Memento" concerts in October will be her first major shows in Hong Kong since 2009's "Supergoo" series - and her first since officially coming out. Ho does wonder what the Hong Kong audience thinks about her and expects from her after a long absence, but concludes: "All I can do is present the person that I really am, instead of giving them what they expect."
And the results so far are refreshing. While she has long had an androgynous image, Ho's latest promotional campaign features her in a series of sexy, feminine photographs, and on the day of the interview, the artist is wearing a pair of five-inch high heels and a miniskirt.
During the past four years, Ho has been busy exploring the Mando-pop market, and touring in the theatre production Awakening - an adaptation of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, by Hong Kong director Edward Lam Yik-wah.
Ho's long absence from the local scene came after a difficult period for the artist. While her previous two albums - 2008's Ten Days in the Madhouse and Heroes (2009) - were acclaimed by critics, sales were disappointing. "The results just didn't add up. I felt so lost and almost quit the industry," she recalls.
Instead, she decided to test the waters in Taiwan. "I had been working in Hong Kong for many years, but when you land on a different shore, no one knows who you are," she says. "I learnt to enjoy the process, and influencing people through my work is what really matters to me. I learnt to be at ease with the position I'm in."
Although Ho may not be the biggest-selling female singer in Hong Kong, she has a loyal following - and these fans are the reason she didn't quit the industry in 2009.
"I thought, 'Wait, they have been hanging on to what they believe in because I have been fighting for what I believe in the whole time'. If I had given up, the whole community would have collapsed. So that held me back."