My first experience of Hong Kong was, I must admit, unusual. It was 2013, I was 30 years old, and I’d just flown 6,000 miles to perform a song at a huge protest.
I’d written the song six years earlier. It was called This Is My Dream, and it was a defiant song about not giving up. At the time, I was a struggling singer-songwriter living in the small English retirement town of Worthing; I posted the song on a website for unsigned musicians, and then mostly forgot about it.
That is, until a music supervisor working for a dynamic new TV station called Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV) found it. HKTV was an upstart that had invested more than HK$900m (£84m) in shaking up Hong Kong television, which until then had been boring, staid and heavily reliant on China. The producer wanted my song as a theme tune for their new network.
But when the authorities rejected HKTV’s licence bid without explanation, my song suddenly took on a strange new life: it went from a TV theme tune to being played at protest rallies. Suddenly the phone was ringing and before I knew it I was on a red carpet on the other side of the world, further than I’d ever travelled, with flashing bulbs and cameras thrust in my face and reporters asking how I felt about being the face of an anti-China movement.
When I stepped on stage, I was touched by the crowd’s emotion and solidarity – a spirit of collective perseverance that I’d soon learn Hongkongers call the “Lion Rock Spirit”. And the city itself was love at first sight. Every place has its own rhythm: Hong Kong’s was non-stop and addictive. The fast pace, the neon lights, the diversity; from the perfectly sculpted mountains to the gleaming skyscrapers of Central and Kowloon framing the blue waters of Victoria Harbour, I was awestruck.
For the first few months, too, I felt like a celebrity. People regularly stopped me in the street and asked to take photos. Many wanted to shake my hand and thank me for flying from the UK to support the HKTV protest rallies. I was invited to jump queues in restaurants, was sent freebies. It was so far removed from the humdrum life I’d known back in Worthing that in April 2014, after my song had topped the local iTunes charts, I relocated to Hong Kong to give my music career another try.
But not all was well. HKTV lost their appeal for a broadcast licence, and was given no proper reason why. Across the city, the protests were laying the foundation for what would become a decade-long fight for freedom – pitting Hong Kong people’s against an opaque government.
Meanwhile, locals explained that some entertainment companies in Hong Kong might avoid me in order to keep “on the good side” of the government. Indeed, getting a record deal proved difficult. Universal Music Hong Kong, which had initially acquired and licensed my song, no longer wanted to work with me. I met resistance from other record labels, too. It seemed my performance at the protest rallies had made them wary.
I eventually signed with local label Evosound in May 2014, with a firm suggestion that I not participate in any more protests or risk further blacklisting. I felt a strong pressure to self-censor, to be careful about what I did or said.
In September, the 2014 Hong Kong democracy protests that became known as the “umbrella movement” were triggered after China renegaded on a pledge to grant full universal suffrage. For 79 days, tens of thousands took to the streets to demand more transparent elections in the biggest protests the city had then seen. People, mostly young, armed with nothing but umbrellas to shield themselves, showed enormous bravery to fight for what they believed in – but like the HKTV protest before it, they failed to force Beijing to budge.
By the end of 2014, Hong Kong was already a very different place to the one I had first encountered. People, especially young pro-democracy supporters, were miserable. There was a palpable sense of devastation. When the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper invited me to return to the scene where I first performed at the HKTV protests, I found the government offices fenced off with metal railings – a visible sign of the growing divide between the public and the authorities.
I recorded my album, promoted it and took a job as an editor at the South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper. But shortly after, in 2016, the paper was bought by Jack Ma, the billionaire Communist party member, and I quit. Hong Kong’s press freedom has since deteriorated: journalists have been denied resident visas, including Victor Mallet, the former Asia news editor for the Financial Times, who was expelled from the city.
In 2019, things deteriorated further. A proposal to amend the extradition laws sparked battles between police and protesters that raged for months. Teargas was almost omnipresent; it even seeped into my apartment on a few occasions. Horrified, I filmed from my bedroom window as police mercilessly beat protesters on the street below.
Most recently, Beijing’s new national security law has swept in what many are calling the end of “one country, two systems”, the defining principle that once made Hong Kong unique and enabled it to thrive. Since the law was introduced, the atmosphere here feels heavier. A blanket of fear suffocates the city. Protests and freedom of speech have been curtailed. Rule by law has been replaced with rule by fear. It’s hard to believe just how quickly the city I fell in love with back in 2013 has changed.
What I’ve found most scary and oppressive is the pressure to self-censor. I was deeply alarmed, for example, when reports surfaced last year of people being fired from their jobs simply for posting on social media in support of Hong Kong protests and the right to free speech. Now that we are all muzzled by the national security law, free speech is firmly a thing of the past; virtually anything could be deemed a threat to national security under the new law; it applies to virtually anyone.
My neighbours, a mother and daughter, have already relocated to the UK. They told me the Hong Kong they used to know was dead. With freedom of assembly, speech and press all but vanished in such a short space of time, it’s frightening to think what the next seven years will hold.
But Hong Kong is still the place I call home, and the place that has charmed me more than any other. It’s not the same Hong Kong I first found, but to live here you soon understand why it’s a place people fight so hard for. Regardless of oppressive government attempts to change the city, it’s the Lion Rock Spirit that has come to define Hong Kong for me, a spirit I believe can never be extinguished.