Toronto Star

From Cantopop diva to human rights champion

- STEPHEN BEDE SCHARPER CONTRIBUTO­R Stephen Bede Scharper is associate professor of environmen­t at the University of Toronto and co-author of the recently published “The Green Bible: Words of Hope for a Suffering Planet.”

What happens to those who defend democratic values against authoritar­ian encroachme­nt?

In the U.S., you may be fired, as was army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a key witness in President Donald Trump’s impeachmen­t probe. Or the president might declare you an “enemy of the people.” This odious branding befell Brad Raffensper­ger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, for his role in helping certify that president-elect Joe Biden carried his state.

In Hong Kong, however, your fate is more dire.

This was brought home to me in a powerful and important film about Denise Ho, the Hong-Kong born, Montrealra­ised Cantopop singer, writer and human rights activist. Entitled “Denise Ho: Becoming the Song,” the film premieres in Canada on TV Ontario on Saturday.

Like many Hong Kongers, Ho’s parents emigrated to Canada, fearful that the “one country, two systems” pledge preserving Hong Kong’s democratic traditions, would not be honoured with the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control.

Growing up in Montreal, Ho not only absorbed the joie de vivre and artistic, multicultu­ral vibe of the city, but also acquired a taste for democracy and the creative freedom of expression it affirms.

The film includes charming footage of Ho’s teenage performanc­es in Montreal, with her recounting how she overcame her adolescent shyness and found a sense of herself as a singer and performer. Ho’s story subtly reveals the profound connection between artistic expression and political freedom.

Incubated, as it were, in a liberal, democratic Canada, she brought those values back to Hong Kong to pursue her performanc­e career. Ho’s deep-seated love for her coming-of-age city is palpable in the film when, overcome with emotion, she falters as she attempts to sing her hit tune, “Montreal.”

As protege of her Cantopop idol, Anita Mui, Denise learned the Cantopop craft from her superstar mentor, dubbed the “Madonna of the East,” before Mui’s untimely death from cervical cancer in 2003.

The film records Ho’s subsequent rise in Hong Kong’s pop culture scene, and her branching out to mainland China, which brought easy money and lucrative corporate sponsorshi­ps.

But Ho hungered for something more than glitz and lucre. Encouraged by gay activist and performer Anthony Wong, she decided to come out publicly as a lesbian in 2012 as the Hong Kong legislativ­e council debated protection for the LGBTQ community, and began to weave her sexuality into her music.

But when Ho “came out” against the infringeme­nt of human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, and was arrested during a public protest, her life radically changed.

She was banned from mainland China, the provenance of more than 80 per cent of her income, and her songs and social media accounts were all removed. Her sponsors, such as Lancome, abandoned her in 2016, compelling her to shift from dazzling stages to the street, performing in shops, streetcars and laneways, and crowdfundi­ng for her concerts.

As Ho observes in the film, “I had all these themes of freedom and revolution in my songs, but I was only role-playing back then because it was only in my head. But then so many years later on, with what happened afterwards, it just became a reality show.”

Why is Denise Ho’s story so important? This film provides a rare opportunit­y to celebrate someone speaking out for democratic values in Hong Kong, despite tremendous personal and profession­al losses. Ho’s remarkable blend of steel-edge courage and emotional vulnerabil­ity is an inspiring example.

Ho’s story cogently demonstrat­es that a crisis in democracy in Hong Kong is an internatio­nal crisis, inviting us to find ways to support the people of Hong Kong as they feel the heavy breath of authoritar­ian rule. (Many involved in the film were reluctant to speak with me fearing dangerous repercussi­ons.)

As the life stories of democratic­ally minded whistleblo­wers in the United States and Hong Kong show, there can be a high price for defending your ideals.

What can one person do about it? Watch this film.

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