On a Monday evening at a waterfront park under a flyover in Hong Kong’s Kwun Tong district, a dozen singers took their place as the orchestra struck up the overture to Les Miserables, the hit musical based on Victor Hugo’s French Revolution epic.
As heavy vehicles rolled by, many in the several hundred strong audience moved along with the music, nodding their heads or mouthing the lyrics.
As pro-democracy protests in the city enters its 21st week and with police increasingly clamping down on mass rallies, Hong Kongers are turning to other creative means of protest such as small-scale free concerts like the one in Kwun Tong. They are just one of hundreds of community activities, including paper crane folding sessions, mass sing-a-longs and even shopping days, to maintain the momentum of the protest movement.
On Sept 29, crowds gathered at Times Square in the Causeway Bay shopping district where they folded thousands of paper cranes, forming massive displays in the mall’s plaza. In Japanese culture, the cranes represent peace, hope and good wishes.
The gathering in Times Square was in stark contrast to what was unfolding across Hong Kong Island, with protesters fighting pitched battles with the police on the streets, tossing bricks and Molotov cocktails. Police responded with multiple volleys of tear gas and even rolled out a water cannon.
“At that time, we wanted to spread some positivity because not all of us can take part in protests because of our jobs, so we do what we can in other ways,” said Miss Catherine Yip, who attended the session in the shopping district.
About two weeks earlier on Sept 14, which was the Mid-Autumn Festival, thousands scaled Lion Rock in Kowloon and Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island where they formed human chains and held up yellow paper lanterns with protest slogans – a nod to the festival’s lantern-lighting tradition.
Others have organised community screenings of the documentary Winter On Fire, about the Ukrainian protests, and Lost In The Fumes, a documentary about the city’s jailed pro-independence activist Edward Leung, who is widely credited with coining the phrase “free Hong Kong, revolution of our times”, a popular protest slogan.
The slogan is also popular among Hong Kongers who shout it from the windows of their flats.
“In the current protests, there are the more extreme hardline protesters, and others who are more ‘enchanting’, forming the Lennon Walls and human chains. These are more colourful, very effective for media attention and build community support around the cause,” said Antony Dapiran, author of City Of Protest: A Recent History Of Dissent In Hong Kong.
Lennon Walls, a nod to a wall of artwork that appeared in Prague after the assassination of John Lennon, are walls covered with hundreds of post-its and artwork bearing messages of solidarity.
Since protests escalated in June, such walls have sprouted up all over the city. Pro-government protesters, who have denounced the walls as vandalism, often tear them down but they usually reappear shortly after.
The organiser of the concert in Kwun Tong, Carl Chan, said he was inspired to bring something to the community after learning about a friend’s mother who could not attend mass rallies because of a health condition.
“I realised that many of the songs in the musical also apply to Hong Kong and our current struggle,” he told The Straits Times.
A professional actor in musicals, he connected with others in the arts community through a Telegram group and floated the idea of staging free concerts across the city’s 18 districts in solidarity with the protesters.
The 25 performers – 12 musicians and 13 singers – come from all walks of life: students, hobbyists and professionals. After the first performance, others have expressed interest in joining the group and there are plans to stage more performances in different areas next month.
“At the end of the day, it’s about bringing what we do best to support the movement. Since I’m a singer and actor, a musical is the best way to do this,” said soprano Donna Chu.