Conversation: The Silencing of Hong Kong

Conversation: The Silencing of Hong Kong File photo of Hong Kong rapper JB, who cursed the Hong Kong police force for its violence against protesters in 2019 in a recent track.

In 2016, movie theaters in Hong Kong suddenly dropped "10 Years," an independent film depicting a dystopian future under Chinese rule, in spite of massive success at the box office, perhaps the first indication that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would soon be controlling every aspect of life, as the film predicted. Director Kiwi Chow, 41, talked to 28-year-old Hong Kong rapper JB -- who dropped an explosive track cursing the Hong Kong police force for its violence against protesters in 2019 -- about the silencing of the city by Beijing:

Chow: I was pretty happy and at peace with myself when I decided [to make 10 Years]. I made a conscious choice to take that on. I thought if something did happen, I would accept it. People have asked me where I find the courage. I said I didn't do it out of courage; I found the courage after I decided to do it. Sure, I was worried, but I stopped being so afraid once I had made it.

JB: I love to perform live, but I need a big venue ... and I can't hire a government-owned venue any more.

Chow: When did that start?

JB: You used to be able to hear my music online, on certain platforms, but after F**k the Popo came out, by 2020 you couldn't hear it anywhere; they'd been taken down.

Chow: Have you performed it since the national security law took effect [on July 1, 2020]?

JB: Nope. Even at a club or private party, they will always ask me not to sing F*ck the Popo.

Chow: Do they just come out and say it directly?

JB: Yeah, they do. Sometimes I get what they're coming from. Why should they get dragged in if I'm going down? I don't want to get them into trouble. Some clubs have been raided by the police just for playing "F**k the Popo", I didn't even perform it and the police still came.

Chow: I never felt as if I was on the front line before. I just made movies. But movies sure feel like the front line now. There's a lot of risk involved; lots of things to worry about. It gets me down. It's horrible.

JB: Yeah, it is.

Chow: I dunno if we're allowed to say the words "Communist Party" on here. If we say those words on a lot of media platforms now, it's unlikely to see the light of day. There are so many things you're not allowed to say now. You can't say "Free Hong Kong. You can't say Revolution Now. Why not? We can't even say "Go Hong Kong!"

JB: It's totally crazy. These are just words. They are tools we use to understand each other. How can they hurt this place? It's crazy that we can't say these things.

Chow: That's going to be a big deal for you, right?

JB: Yeah because of my lyrics.

JB: This National Security Law has put a lot of restraints on artists. We have to worry about so much stuff now. It's just wrong.

Chow: What do we do?

JB: I don't let it worry me.

Chow: You need the power of words to sing. When I listen to your music, I feel we need power like that. In times like these, we need that energy. You tell it like it is. It just pours out of you. That's real power. Language as a kind of automatic weapon.

JB: I was kind of naïve at first. I thought that artistic expression was totally free, especially music. It never occurred to me that my speech could be seen as having a political impact, or that this could affect where I took my music. But I still don't think it's too bad. I think there are ways. There is still space you just have to fight for it.

Chow: I don't think we should be talking about going underground just yet, while we still have some room left. It may not be much, but we need to keep taking up space, keep on creating, until it's totally gone. Then maybe think about going underground. I have an idea; we shouldn't speak Cantonese, but Hong Kongish. The Hong Kong dialect is mixed up with English. Hong Kong people say stuff like 'be water' ... in this movement.

JB: If we keep making Cantonese songs, people will still feel like Cantonese speakers, even if some younger people do speak Mandarin. A lot of Asians listen to Cantopop; it has a charm. Look at Leslie Cheung. I feel I have to hold onto Cantonese, given that fewer people are speaking it now, especially among the younger kids in school. There are so many ways to save it. Like a movie in Hong Kong dialect. Once you've finished it, they can't make it disappear.

Chow: "Made in Hong Kong" was synonymous with freedom. Hong Kong's film industry has been around for a long time, and it has occupied an important position in the history of world film, because it is so varied in terms of genre. It has everything. There used to be a kind of zombie film with kung fu, like a horror movie that was so funny too.

JB: The spirit of Hong Kong is a flexible thing. It can bend and stretch so many ways. As you said, kung fu plus comedy, that is, anything goes, really. But there is less and less room for it in Hong Kong now, less and less flexibility.

Chow: Our popular culture is much weaker than in the past, in terms of its reach and popularity, if you compare it to the 1980s and 1990s. And yet Hongkongers have grabbed the attention of the world with their mass protest movements.

JB: Maybe turbulent times are the best times for forging a culture. But that will be hard if nobody thinks this place is livable any more. People should try to express themselves more when times are tough, at the darkest times, and that's when it will be at its strongest. There will be more sparks when more people are going through hard times.

Chow: I like listening to you. I like listening to young people, because I am not young any more. The 2019 movement has changed Hong Kong, and it's all because of young people. The fact that they came out onto the streets was hugely important. Their purity of heart, their disciplined behavior, their approach, their wisdom, drive, and sense of humor really shook me up. Also, you, your anger and energy, the way you find your own place to shine, the way you vent in your songs, call this stuff out on others' behalf. Many of us can't call it out, yet you are willing to do that publicly on behalf of everyone.

JB: That's what artists are supposed to do, especially musicians. We have to tell the stories you daren't tell or don't know how to tell. We use music to tell them, and that's what movies do too.

Reported by Gigi Lee and Chan Yun Nam for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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