“Under the Vast Sky”: Cantopop Memories and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement

October 16, 2014
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[Editor’s Note: This post appears as part of Antenna’s partnership with the International Journal of Cultural Studies, whereby authors of recently published articles are invited to comment upon, update, apply, and/or extend their articles. Liew’s article, “Rewind and Recollect: Activating Dormant Memories and Politics in Teresa Teng’s Music Videos Uploaded on YouTube” appears in a special issue on Social Media and Cross-Border Cultural Transmissions in Asia: State, Industries, Audiences”]


On the night of 28 September 2014, thousands poured onto the streets of Hong Kong expressing their protest over the use of teargas by the police to quell otherwise peaceful demonstrators who had only umbrellas and lab goggles to protect themselves from the noxious white clouds. As darkness descended onto the postcolonial city state, one of the collective actions of the spontaneous crowds was to sing in unison the Canto-pop band Beyond’s “Under the Vast Sky” (海闊天空).

Written in 1993 by its lead vocalist Wong Kar Kui who died in the same year from an accident in Japan, the song has become synonymous with the youth driven “Umbrella Movement” pushing for more meaningful universal suffrage in a city under the watchful eye of Beijing.

Forgive me if I am unable to give up my love for freedom
Though I am afraid I may still fall
背棄了理想 誰人都可以
Everyone can give up their ideals
I am not afraid it is someday there is only you and me.



Excerpts from one of Beyond’s songs “Golden times” (光輝歲月) on the Yellow banners that reads “embracing freedom in the storm”, and “self-confidence can change the future”

Excerpts from one of Beyond’s songs “Golden times” (光輝歲月) on the Yellow banners that reads “embracing freedom in the storm”, and “self-confidence can change the future”

As seen in the excerpts of the lyrics above, in the otherwise largely apolitical industry of Hong Kong’s Cantonese based popular music, or Canto-pop, the song can be considered as one of the household tunes. Emphasizing on newness and “now-ess” contemporary popular music has often treated past productions as residual and vestigial to older consumers that are locked in the nostalgic “evergreen” past. However, with not just from the lyrics coming out coherently in unison from the sea of people that occupied the streets, but banners of the lyrics of the song scrolled down from bridges and strapped across walls, the two decade old Vast Skies has taken on new relevance.

Even as new songs have been created, “Under the Vast Sky” has shown the significance of cultural memories. Acquired and familiarized probably from the repeated late night radio and television broadcasts as well as karaoke outings, and more recently, internet uploads, the persistent popularity of the songs of Beyond has probably been the result of the sustained everyday process of inter-generational cultural transmissions; a transmission that has in turn been drawn upon at a critical juncture as an organic social resource by a generation was born after Wong’s death. Nostalgia, idealism, heritage, authenticity, vernacular, plurality, dignity, Cantonese, and traditional-ized, Beyond’s “Under the Vast Sky” stands in contrast with the politics of displacement, erasure and amnesia in Mainland China. Against hegemonic memory-draining statist narratives and corporate projects, the Umbrella Movement is about remembering to struggle, and the struggle to remember.

Here, I have been reminded of a scene from Hong Kong’s film director Fruit Chan’s 1999 Little Cheung (細路祥), wherein the nine year old protagonist (Yiu Yuet-Ming) after whom the film is titled, is dragged out by his father to stand on the streets with his pants pulled down. Humiliated but defiant against an oncoming rain, Little Cheung shouts out the verses of the late Cantonese opera star Tang Weng Cheung (鄧永祥), known also as New Ma Sze-Tsang ( 新馬師曾). Even in frightened anger as he starts to urinate uncontrollably in the open, the boy who had grown up learning about the late Cantonese opera star from watching television repeats with his grandmother, recited the verses fluently to the last word. While having no direct relevance to the situation, the stage quotes and songs of “Brother Cheung,” as the late singer was affectionately known, becomes a latent cultural pool from which the humiliated boy draws strength.

As an organic vernacular text, the “Yellow” Cantonese popular culture has been a voice for not just Hong Kongers living precariously now within the embrace of the “Red” culture of Mainland China. For the Chinese diaspora in particularly Southeast Asia living in a time of blatant anti-Chinese sentiments, even in the ethnic Chinese majority of Singapore, Canto-pop was one such cultural tube that kept communities culturally oxygenated. For me in the context of Singapore, growing up in a Cantonese speaking community, I have been linked to such tubes from Hong Kong. Although my parents and relatives have accepted the government’s “Speak Mandarin Campaign” that was implemented in 1979 to “discourage the use of Chinese dialects” through barring its use in the mainstream media, they continued to listen to old Cantonese opera quietly. Like Little Cheung, I grew up on such televisual and musical traditions, and the theme songs from productions like Purple Hair Pin (紫釵記) and Princess Cheung Ping(帝女花) have become part of my cultural memories against the institutional erasure and fossilization of what the party-state in Singapore considers as parochial and unproductive for the project of state formation. From the messages from non-Hong Kong supporters of the Umbrella Movement around the world, several who consumed Canto-pop and Hong Kong television dramas through their formative years have cited these cultural resources as inspiration.

In a rally in Singapore supporting their Hong Kong counterparts, the songs of Beyond were sung by Singaporeans who have likely been inspired by their music as well. Here, I would like to feature a poem from a friend that goes by the name of KT Wong on his Facebook page on 4 October 2014 which states:

I am not a Hong Konger
But, I am no stranger to Hong Kong
Ever since I first knew things, I was already watching HK dramas [over dinner]
And, overtime, I gradually can converse in Cantonese
I grew up with Hong Kong culture, its a part of me
Hong Kongers, you are like my family
Hong Kong, I don’t have the ability to do anything for you.
But, I hope to give you a yellow umbrella
At least, it can shield you from the rain during storms
梅可 愛繪本
I feel the same way. Thanks Kt Wong

What has been extraordinary about the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong is the peaceful and organized nature of the student led protests and, more importantly, their struggles to remember as much as their remembering to struggle. Apart from Hong Kong, the struggle of the Umbrella Movement is also for the non-Hong Kong residents that have drawn memories and strength from Cantopop. Should there be a day when they get punished and stripped in public like Little Cheung, I hope that the memories of Wong Kar Kui would give them the strength to resist being stripped of their dignity. Meanwhile, in a way no official state and corporate project can match, by amplifying the songs of Beyond onto the streets of Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok, the Umbrella Movement has made significant emotional investments to make Hong Kong a distinctively memorable city that continues to give others memories.



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