Culture Vulture

Foong Woei Wan: Power of a protest song

Hong Kong protesters singing Under A Vast Sky in the rain. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Hong Kong protesters singing Under A Vast Sky in the rain. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Beyond's rallying anthem Under A Vast Sky resonates far beyond the Occupy Central movement

Recently, I have been listening to Beyond on repeat. When I'm standing on a crowded train, I stop short of singing along but still mouth the lyrics. And when we find the time, my friends and I mean to occupy a karaoke room for a night and bellow out Beyond songs.

We're not fans of the Canto-rock band, not really. Rather, as sometime fans of Hong Kong pop culture, we have been following the Occupy Central movement in the city, along with the growing playlist of protest songs and rousing YouTube moments.

Whatever you might think of the politics of Hong Kong students and other pro-democracy protesters, it is hard to disregard the power of online videos of thousands of citizens rallying and singing Under A Vast Sky, Beyond's song about the loneliness of being true to one's ideals, in unison on the streets or in the rain.

The pre-eminence of the song as the Hong Kong protest anthem of the past weeks is striking, considering that other recent movements, Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and the Sunflower Movement in Taipei early this year, came and went without a soundtrack as impactful.

When the members of the Sunflower Movement occupied the Taiwanese parliament house, they had a song, Island's Sunrise, written for the occasion with help from Taiwanese punk band Fire Ex. It hasn't left a mark on the pop-cultural consciousness overseas though. When the members of Occupy Wall Street moved into a New York park, they had a slogan, "We are the 99%", which remains more memorable than any song attached to the movement.

Consider, too, that Under A Vast Sky is a 21-year-old song, and that newer protest numbers have sprung up in Hong Kong. Notably, sound engineer and part-time musician Pan wrote Hold Up An Umbrella - "Quietly sitting in the crowd, you and I are not unafraid" - after he took to the streets on Sept 28, the day the police let off volleys of tear gas to disperse umbrella-carrying protesters.

He forwarded the ballad to singer Denise Ho via Facebook, and it has since been reworked by lyricist Lin Xi and recorded by a group of singers including Ho, Anthony Wong Yiu Ming and Deanie Ip. Ho and Wong have also performed it at protest sites.

In May, the movement had adapted Do You Hear The People Sing?, the revolutionary song from the musical Les Miserables, to awaken Hong Kongers to the cause. The sombre music video, of a lone little girl singing, has inspired others, including a version with actor Anthony Wong Chau Sang and another with Hong Kong-born, Oxford-based students.

Then there are other amateur efforts, which are touching precisely because they are amateur.

Among them are Tear Gas Grenade, a rap ballad by a group of teenage boys, and I'd Call You A Stupid D*** But You'd Be Angry, a rebuke to knee-jerk critics of the protests by ad man David Cheang.

Yet, Under A Vast Sky is far more resonant. Why?

Firstly, there is the song itself.

Beyond wrote stadium-sized songs with idealistic, even romantic, lyrics. Under A Vast Sky, in which frontman Wong Ka Kui alluded to his struggle to steer his own course in the Hong Kong music business, has "Forgive me in this life for being uninhibited and loving freedom". Glory Days, Wong's song about South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, has "Hold fast to freedom in the rain".

Made to be anthems, the songs lend themselves to massive open-air rallies apind have been sung at pro-democracy marches in Hong Kong for years.

Then there is the symbolism. Beyond were unlikely rock rebels in the world of Cantopop and trendy stars, and the early death of Wong in 1993, when he was 31, elevated him into an icon.

Cultural Studies@Lingnan, an online magazine by Lingnan University in Hong Kong, has looked into the appeal of Beyond to social movements in the city. According to a 2010 article in the magazine, although not all the participants in the movements are fans of Beyond, they are quite ready to identify with the band.

One activist goes as far as to call Wong a "spiritual leader". He notes that traditional protest songs "don't go into the heart", whereas Beyond songs can be "sung from the heart".

Finally, Under A Vast Sky is just a great song that has been many things to many people through the decades.

To me, it is a song that played in the backdrop of my teens and 20s, for instance, and which I have written over with my memories.

Despite a reputation for business-first pragmatism, Hong Kong can be public-spirited. Not a natural disaster strikes in Asia, it seems, without Hong Kong stars springing into action to raise funds.

So Under A Vast Sky has been sung at charity concerts too, as well as reality shows (when former Beyond guitarist Paul Wong performed it on the Hunan TV show I Am A Singer last year, the audience was excited).

Perhaps the bigness of the song, and of the Hong Kong people, is best summed up by a friend of mine, who theorises: "Touch wood, but if there's another Sichuan earthquake tomorrow, they'll probably be singing Beyond songs to raise funds for the mainlanders."

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