Glory to Hong Kong – a song which won fame worldwide as the anthem of the city’s pro-democracy protest movement – is one year old. And its composer believes it will always resonate with Hongkongers, despite an outright ban in schools following the enactment of a sweeping national security law.
On September 8 last year, songwriter Thomas was among the crowds who rallied outside the US Consulate General in Central district to urge President Donald Trump to “liberate Hong Kong.” Demonstrators chanted their customary slogans and then someone produced a speaker to play an unfamiliar tune.
It was Glory to Hong Kong, a song released by Thomas and his team on August 31, 2019, featuring lyrics co-written by netizens using local discussion forum LIHKG. These called for democracy and freedom, and included the now-banned protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”
The song was played on a loop as protesters outside the consulate took in its strong, steady percussive beat. Some began searching for the lyrics on their phones and tried to sing along. Many were off pitch, Thomas recalled, but their willingness to attempt it was impressive.
“That kind of persistence and people’s willingness to do their part was so special,” said Thomas, who asked to be identified only by his first name.
Two days later, crowds of local football fans belted out the new protest song at the beginning of a match between Hong Kong and Iran, after they booed the Chinese national anthem. The next day at Sha Tin’s New Town Plaza, hundreds sang Glory to Hong Kong in unison. Many waved their mobile phone torches while some placed their right hand over their heart, much the same as Americans do for their national anthem.
The song soon became known worldwide as the unofficial anthem of the large-scale protests triggered by a now-axed extradition bill, with the lyrics translated into multiple languages including English, Japanese and French. It was made available on international streaming platforms such as Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube.
Reflecting on the song’s success one year on, Thomas said the international attention was beyond all his expectations. He only intended to create a new piece of music to reflect the latest social unrest in the city, rather than reverting to protest-related songs written decades ago.
The 25-year-old said he hoped the song could unite and encourage Hongkongers and remind people why they started the pro-democracy movement.
“Perhaps when people first heard the song, they suddenly felt this sense of identity, that they are Hongkongers. I think this resonance is very important because many people thought this song could represent them,” he said.
Over the past year, Glory to Hong Kong has been played and sung countless times at protests and rallies. It also became a crucial part of the unique form of demonstration known as “Sing with you,” where people would gather in shopping centres or other venues to belt out the song as a show of solidarity.
This type of protest was favoured by “wo lei fei” – people who favoured a peaceful, and rational means of fighting for freedom and democracy, as opposed to vandalism and violence such as petrol bombs.
In recent months, however, people who congregate to sing Glory to Hong Kong have faced greater risks. Police issued fixed penalty tickets of HK$2,000 to people at “Sing with you” events, citing violations of the coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings.
The risk became even greater after Beijing on June 30 enacted a controversial and sweeping national security law which criminalises secession, subversion, collusion with foreign powers and interruption to transport and other infrastructure.
The government soon outlawed the “Liberate Hong Kong” slogan, claiming it has a pro-independence, secessionist and subversive intent. The Education Bureau banned students from playing, singing or broadcasting Glory to Hong Kong on campuses, saying it contained “strong political messages” and was closely linked to violence and other illegal acts.
Despite the schools ban, the government has refused to say whether Glory to Hong Kong is illegal under the national security law. Thomas said he believed the ambiguity was intended to “rein people in” pending any legal decision.
He also said a ban on the protest song was bound to happen. “We had anticipated that the government would be that unreasonable and suppress citizens’ voices, by fair means or foul.”
Yet the uncertainty surrounding the song’s legal status has not stopped Hongkongers from singing it at recent demonstrations. Thomas said people would not back down easily in the face of what he called an “unreasonable request.”
He and his team have meantime been producing other protest-related songs, including one in Japanese to be released later this month. While his team has always kept a low profile, the composer admitted they are now more wary of the legal risks.
“It’s a lot harder to find people to join our filming that would require them to show their faces. When contacting music distributors, they would also voice some concerns over the lyrics,” he said.
HKFP contacted Apple Music and Spotify in July to see if the streaming service providers would handle the Hong Kong protest song any differently under the national security law. The two companies did not respond and the track remained available on both platforms at the time of publication.
In just one year, Glory to Hong Kong has gone from being a popular protest anthem to a legally problematic work. But Thomas said people would find a way to keep the song alive: “Maybe it will go more underground, but it will not disappear completely. I think everyone will remember this song.”