Pop star pol­i­tics: A Hong Kong boy band takes on China

Lodi News-Sentinel - - WORLD - By Alice Su

HONG KONG — It was Ed­die Ho’s worst night­mare: call­ing one of the boys’ par­ents to say that they’d been ar­rested.

Ho, 31, had man­aged Boyz Re­born, a teenage boy band in Hong Kong, since the boys were el­e­men­tary school kids dur­ing his so­cial worker days at a com­mu­nity cen­ter in a subur­ban pub­lic hous­ing es­tate.

They’d grown up to­gether, the nine mem­bers flip­ping their hair, strum­ming gui­tars and belt­ing out songs about the tri­als of grow­ing up. Schools and lo­cal TV sta­tions gushed over how cute and so­cially con­scious they were.

That was be­fore their songs took a po­lit­i­cal turn, shift­ing from grades and girls to tear gas, free­dom of thought and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.

Born in a post-han­dover Hong Kong that of­fi­cially be­longed to China but had not yet been in­te­grated into the main­land sys­tem, the boys are part of a gen­er­a­tion that has taken a front­line role in Hong Kong’s six-month protests.

They chose their band name based on a say­ing com­mon among their peers: “This city is dy­ing.”

Now their lead singer, Ben Chan, 19, was pressed un­der the weight of sev­eral po­lice of­fi­cers, grind­ing his bleed­ing nose into the ground.

It was Oct. 6, two days after Hong Kong’s gov­ern­ment an­nounced a ban on masks in pub­lic gath­er­ings. Po­lice had pounced on Chan in an al­ley, ar­rest­ing him for il­le­gal as­sem­bly, mask-wear­ing and pos­ses­sion of an of­fen­sive weapon — a laser pen in Chan’s bag — at a protest.

He is one of more than 4,000 peo­ple ar­rested in Hong Kong’s protests so far, about a third of whom were born after 1997.

Ho was in an­other part of the city, ac­com­pa­ny­ing in­jured pro­test­ers to a hospi­tal, when he heard about the arrest. He shud­dered as he di­aled the num­ber for Chan’s par­ents.

“Ed­die, why didn’t you stop my son?” Chan’s mother cried as she heard the news.

Chan’s fa­ther was quiet, then sar­cas­tic. “You guys have got the team to man­age this, right? I don’t have to do any­thing, right?” he scoffed.

For the first time, Ho didn’t know what to say.

Boyz Re­born be­gan in 2011 as Big Boyz Club, a group of nine 11-year-olds who were ne­glected by teach­ers be­cause they had bad grades and were dis­tant from par­ents who spent long hours at work.

Many of their early songs were about aca­demic pressure and want­ing to be worth more than their school­work.

In Hong Kong, a hy­per­cap­i­tal­is­tic so­ci­ety with one of the worst lev­els of wealth in­equal­ity in the world, fail­ures tend to be blamed on the in­di­vid­ual, Ho said.

“We usu­ally blame the vic­tim, like: You don’t work hard enough, so you don’t have enough money to pay for rent. You don’t study hard enough, so you can’t get a good job,” he said.

Only when he be­came a so­cial worker did Ho re­al­ize that pub­lic poli­cies were be­hind many of Hong Kong’s hous­ing, wel­fare and in­equal­ity prob­lems. He brought the boys along on vol­un­teer­ing trips, de­ter­mined to in­still a sense of civic re­spon­si­bil­ity in them.

“You’ve got to love and care for the place that you live in, and you will try to make it bet­ter,” he said. “If there’s some­thing bad hap­pen­ing in this place, you should do some­thing about it. You shouldn’t just sit and see it go down.”

Soon, their songs shifted from the per­sonal to the po­lit­i­cal. They sang about ed­u­ca­tion reform, ur­ban poverty and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion. One of their top hits was a mu­sic video in which they stood on a beach, hands linked, singing against a pro­posed land recla­ma­tion project.

In 2012, Hong Kong’s sec­ondary school stu­dents led a move­ment against a pro­posed “moral and na­tional ed­u­ca­tion” cur­ricu­lum that would have re­shaped his­tory text­books in the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party’s fa­vor.

The band wrote a song about free­dom of thought.

In 2014, po­lice fired tear gas at pro­test­ers oc­cu­py­ing down­town Hong Kong and de­mand­ing uni­ver­sal voting rights in the Um­brella Move­ment.

The band wrote a song about tear gas and per­formed on stage in the protest camps.

At that point, Ho said the so­cial work agency — which didn’t re­spond to re­quest for com­ment — pres­sured him to keep away from pol­i­tics.

At church (Ho is a de­vout Chris­tian), he was crit­i­cized for be­ing too sec­u­lar.

“They would say, ‘You should go to church, you should pray to God, you shouldn’t get in­volved into the con­flict of the peo­ple. It’s not spir­i­tual,’” he said.

But the boys re­fused to stop. They moved out of the com­mu­nity cen­ter, changed the band’s name and wrote a song about hold­ing on to their val­ues de­spite the ap­a­thetic main­stream. Re­cently, their songs were also blocked from mu­sic stream­ing sites in main­land China.

“Some peo­ple say our songs are politi­cized. But to us, we are just speaking our truth,” Chan said.

Five years later, the mood in Hong Kong has changed. So­cial work­ers are protest­ing — as are lawyers, doc­tors, teach­ers, white-col­lar of­fice work­ers and many Chris­tians. Ho be­lieves it’s be­cause the prob­lems in Hong Kong have be­come more ap­par­ent in re­cent years.

The much stronger po­lice re­sponse to this year’s protests has also trig­gered pub­lic anger, even among those who are not at the front lines.

“The protests are too in­tense, too vi­o­lent. I didn’t go out,” said CT Ye­ung, 33, an English teacher at the boys’ for­mer pri­mary school.

His mid­dle-aged peers are newly mar­ried, strug­gling to pay mort­gage and raise kids, car­ry­ing too many bur­dens to risk them on the streets. They can’t af­ford to face off with po­lice like the stu­dents are do­ing, Ye­ung said. But he sup­ports them.

One night in Oc­to­ber, one of his for­mer stu­dents — a class­mate of the Boyz Re­born mem­bers — was ar­rested for the sec­ond time dur­ing a protest. Ye­ung sent him an in­ten­tion­ally vague mes­sage on In­sta­gram: “How are you do­ing? Will you come visit soon?”

Then he deleted it, wor­ried about po­ten­tial reper­cus­sions.

“I cried,” Ye­ung said. He felt ridicu­lous for delet­ing his own mes­sage, but also afraid.

“The young­sters, they are brave,” he said. “I un­der­stand why they keep go­ing out ev­ery time. Ac­tu­ally, they’re pro­tect­ing us. If there were no front­lin­ers and no noise and no news, no one would pay at­ten­tion to these is­sue any­more.”

MAR­CUS YAM/LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

Boyz Re­born vo­cal­ist Ben Chan at a protest near Mong Kok in Hong Kong on Oct. 27.

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