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'Glory to Hong Kong': anthem born of turmoil turns into music of hope

Crowds sing anonymous composer's song in malls and streets

HONG KONG -- You can gauge a lot about a revolution from its soundtrack. Along with boycotts, blockades and human chains, group singing has been a part of Hong Kong's protest movement since it erupted on June 9 when more than a million people took to the streets over a proposed anti-extradition law.

As protesters' demands have evolved, so too has the playlist. Early on, Christian groups had countered tear gas and rubber bullets with the hymn "Sing Hallelujah to the Lord." Then came "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from the musical Les Miserables, a chorus about a historical uprising; it had been a favorite during the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Revolution. This song returned both in protest rallies and as a rejoinder to the Chinese national anthem at soccer matches and school gatherings.

But the movement scored its first original hit with "Glory to Hong Kong," a hymn-like melody soon known simply as the Anthem. Its anonymous creator, a self-proclaimed pop songwriter identified as "Thomas dgx yhl," posted the piece in an online forum on Aug. 26; forum members began suggesting changes, many of which were incorporated into the text.

Within five days, a music video using protest footage from television and social media hit YouTube and quickly went viral, before being taken down by a claim of copyright infringement.

"During these times everyone felt the need to sing something," says Leon Chu, director of the Chinese University of Hong Kong Chorus, "and the Anthem just appeared at the damn right time to fill the gap."

Chu had witnessed the emotional power of group singing in late July at the Taipei International Choral Festival. After his chorus's performance of "Below the Lion Rock," which recalls a popular 1970s television series about working-class Hong Kong, audience members at Taiwan's National Concert Hall unfurled bilingual banners exclaiming "HK Add Oil!", a popular Hong Kong expression of support. It took several minutes for the singers to regain composure.

But "Lion Rock," Chu says, is hardly an enduring choice as protest music: "After a while, most pop songs just became a joke. People hear the first few words and say, that song again?" The Anthem's chief strength, he says, is that it aims higher than mere nostalgia.

Thomas, the composer, has told reporters that he was looking "to unite people and boost morale," so he modeled his piece on several national anthems as well as 18th-century Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi's choral works. He started with his final line -- translated as "May people reign, proud and free" -- and then worked backward.

A musical flash mob plays "the Anthem" in a shopping mall in the city's Kowloon Tong district on Sept. 18.   © Reuters

In Hong Kong, a former British territory with a long history of church-affiliated education, the Anthem's hymnic style proved supremely approachable.

Frederick Lau, head of Chinese University's music department, sees it a bit differently. "The real irony," he says, "is that the Anthem heavily resembles the songs that Chinese communists once used against the capitalists." Lau has been commissioned to include the Anthem in the Oxford Book of Protest Music, to be published later this year.

"One reason for the Communists' success in the 1920s and 1930s was the way they wielded group songs as a 'weapon of the people,'" Lau says. "There was always some perceived invisible power, some anti-hegemony built in."

Hong Kong's Anthem fully became part of the protesters nonviolent arsenal only after a slickly produced video emerged, with a series of haunting images of a full orchestra and chorus dressed in black and wearing oxygen masks.

Suddenly, this was no slapdash rendering of a crowdsourced tune, but rather a fully orchestrated statement in four-part harmony -- a clear professional proclamation from Hong Kong's classical music and film communities.

"When I first heard the piece in the forum, I consciously chose it over the other songs protesters were singing," says the video's producer, identifying himself only as "S." "It was the one least like a pop song and most like an anthem in tempo and structure. Pop songs are all about individual expression. Anthems are meant to unite."

A decadelong veteran of Hong Kong's classical music circles, S took advantage of a citywide strike on Sept. 5 to contact local musicians and singers. Within 48 hours, more than 200 performers offered their services for an orchestration sketched by a local Ph.D. composition candidate.

A quick call to a filmmaking colleague yielded a 10-person camera crew who supplied their own equipment. The film shoot -- including rehearsals and separate audio recording -- lasted about four hours, with the edited version uploaded two days later on Sept. 11. Within 24 hours, it had generated more than a million views.

The entire process, in short, resembled the decentralized anonymity of the protest movement itself. "It transcended music as either art or commerce," says S, who corresponded with Thomas only through a message board. "It's crazy how much trust was involved. How did I know he was the composer and copyright holder? He could be an undercover cop. I could be a triad. But he trusted that I'd deliver, and I trusted him enough to give him my scores. That would never happen in the real world."

Key details, such as the shoot's time and location, were on a need-to-know basis, but with so many people involved, S took no chances. "I had a team of lawyers present, just in case," he says. "We were all dressed in black, wearing protest gear. The last thing we wanted was to have 150 people beaten up by triads, or to see the police come in with a warrant.

"What is truly depressing," he says, "is that viewers see the smoke machines and instantly recognize it as tear gas. If this video had been made five years ago, people would think we were radicals pushing the limits. Now they accept tear gas and rubber bullets as a regular part of life."

S's biggest fear is that the video could encourage too much positivity. "People might think they're making a difference just by singing," he says. "But people have been caught in a downward spiral of depression, with nine confirmed suicides already. Some young people literally can't go home because of their beliefs. We're just trying to restore the balance. When people sing this piece, they know they're not alone."

Indeed, groups now burst into song on the streets. During Mid-Autumn Festival in September, a few hundred people at Victoria Harbour sang the Anthem while reading the text from their mobile phones. Most singing, though, takes place in shopping malls, where the high ceilings eerily recreate the acoustics of a church.

In the past week alone, copycat videos have included multilingual translations, a transcription for traditional Chinese instruments and a rendition featuring secondary school musicians.

There was even a rival video response, with white-clad musicians and singers -- including pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho -- lip-syncing new lyrics condemning the protests to a shoddy synthesized accompaniment. The video was quickly taken down from YouTube for copyright violations, though the video is still posted on the mainland platform Weibo.

Hong Kong's musical professionals freely acknowledge the Anthem's flaws: clumsy lyrics, a melodic range too wide for most amateur singers -- a fault that four-part harmony helps to hide -- tones in the Cantonese text running counter to the music's melodic contours. But no one argues against its effectiveness.

"Look, it's not Brahms' First Symphony," says S, "but our composer would rather have his piece serve its intended purpose than tick all the boxes. 'Glory to Hong Kong' is probably less successful than any piece ever submitted to a college music department, but it's one of the most successful works Hong Kong has seen in decades."

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