From 1988’s “Forbidden Colors,” named for a 1953 novel by gay Japanese writer Yukio Mishima to this year’s “Is It A Crime?,” commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Hong Kong Canto-pop star Anthony Wong Yiu-ming has combined music and activism over his long career. As Hong Kong explodes in revolt against Beijing’s tightening grip with the One Country, Two Systems policy ticking to its halfway point, Wong arrived stateside for a tour that included ’s Gramercy Theatre.
Gay City News caught up with 57-year-old Wong in the Upper West Side apartment of Hong Kong film director Evans Chan, a collaborator on several films. The director was hosting a gathering for Hong Kong diaspora fans, many from the New York For Hong Kong (NY4HK) solidarity movement.
The conversation covered Wong’s friendship with out actress, model, and singer Denise Ho Wan-see who co-founded the LGBTQ group Big Love Alliance with Wong and recently spoke to the US Congress; the late Leslie Cheung, perhaps Asia’s most famous LGBTQ celebrity; the threat of China’s rise in the global order; and the ongoing relationship among Canto-pop, the Cantonese language, and Hong Kong identity.
Wong felt it was important to point out that Hong Kong’s current struggle is one of many related to preserving democracy in the former British colony that was handed back to China in 1997. While not his own lyrics, Wong is known for singing “Raise the Umbrella” at public events and in Chan’s 2016 documentary “Raise the Umbrellas,” which examined the 2014 Occupy Central or Umbrella Movement, when Hong Kong citizens took over the central business district for nearly three months, paralyzing the city.
Wong told Gay City News, “I wanted to sing it on this tour because it was the fifth anniversary of the Umbrella Movement last week.”
He added, “For a long time after, nobody wanted to sing that song, because we all thought the Umbrella Movement was a failure. We all thought we were defeated.”
Still, he said, without previous movements “we wouldn’t have reached today,” adding, “Even more so than the Umbrella Movement, I still feel we feel more empowered than before.”
Hong Kong’s current protests came days after the 30th anniversary commemorations of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, known in China as the June 4th Incident. Hong Kong is the only place on Chinese soil where the Massacre can be publicly discussed and commemorated. Working with Tats Lau of his band Tat Ming Pair, Wong wrote the song “Is It A Crime?” to perform at Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen commemoration. The song emphasizes how the right to remember the Massacre is increasingly fraught.
“I wanted our group to put out that song to commemorate that because to me Tiananmen Square was a big enlightenment,” a warning of what the Beijing government will do to those who challenge it, he said, adding that during the June 4 Victoria Park vigil, “I really felt the energy and the power was coming back to the people. I really felt it, so when I was onstage to sing that song I really felt the energy. I knew that people would go onto the street in the following days.”
As the genre Canto-pop suggests, most of Wong’s work is in Cantonese, also known as Guangdonghua, the language of Guangdong province and Hong Kong. Mandarin, or Putonghua, is China’s national language. Wong feels Beijing’s goal is to eliminate Cantonese, even in Hong Kong.
“When you want to destroy a people, you destroy the language first, and the culture will disappear,” he said, adding that despite Cantonese being spoken by tens of millions of people, “we are being marginalized.”
Canto-pop and the Cantonese language are integral to Hong Kong’s identity; losing it is among the fears driving the protests.
“Our culture is being marginalized, more than five years ago I think I could feel it coming, I could see it coming,” Wong said. “That’s why in my music and in my concerts, I kept addressing this issue of Hong Kong being marginalized.”
This fight against the marginalization of identity has pervaded Wong’s work since his earliest days.
“People would find our music and our words, our lyrical content very apocalyptic,” he explained. “Most of our songs were about the last days of Hong Kong, because in 1984, they signed over the Sino-British declaration and that was the first time I realized I was going to lose Hong Kong.”
Clarifying identity is why Wong officially came out in 2012, after years of hints. He said his fans always knew but journalists hounded him to be direct.
“I sang a lot of songs about free love, about ambiguity and sexuality — even in the ‘80s,” he said, referring to 1988’s “Forbidden Colors.” “When we released that song as a single, people kept asking me questions.”
In 1989, he released the gender-fluid ballad “Forget He is She,” but with homosexuality still criminalized until 1991, he did not state his sexuality directly.
That changed in 2012, a politically active year that brought Hong Kongers out against a now-defunct plan to give Beijing tighter control over grade school curriculum. Raymond Chan Chi-chuen was elected to the Legislative Council, becoming the city’s first out gay legislator. In a concert, Wong used a play on the Chinese word “tongzhi,” which has an official meaning of comrade in the communist sense, but also homosexual in modern slang. By flashing the word about himself and simultaneously about an unpopular Hong Kong leader considered loyal to the Chinese Communist Party, he came out.
“The  show is about identity about Hong Kong, because the whole city is losing its identity,” he said. “So I think I should be honest about it. It is not that I had been very dishonest about it, I thought I was honest enough.”
That same year he founded Big Love Alliance with Denise Ho, who also came out that year. The LGBTQ rights group organizes Hong Kong’s queer festival Pink Dot, which has its roots in Singapore’s LGBTQ movement. Given the current unrest, however, Pink Dot will not be held this year in Hong Kong.
As out celebrities using their star power to promote LGBTQ issues, Wong and Ho follow in the footsteps of fellow Hong Konger Leslie Cheung, the late actor and singer known for “Farewell My Concubine” (1993), “Happy Together” (1997), and other movies where he played gay or sexually ambiguous characters.
“He is like the biggest star in Hong Kong culture,” said Wong, adding he was not a close friend though the two collaborated on an album shortly before Cheung’s 2003 suicide.
Wong said that some might think he came to North America at an odd time, while his native city is literally burning. However, he wanted to help others connect to Hong Kong.
“My tool is still primarily my music, I still use my music to express myself, and part of my concern is about Hong Kong, about the world, and I didn’t want to cancel this tour in the midst of all this unrest,” he said. “In this trip I learned that I could encourage more people to keep an eye on what is going on in Hong Kong.”
Wong worries about the future of LGBTQ rights in Hong Kong, explaining, “We are trying to fight for the freedom for all Hong Kongers. If Hong Kongers don’t have freedom, the minorities won’t.”
That’s why he appreciates Taiwan’s marriage equality law and its leadership in Asia on LGBTQ rights.
“I am so happy that Taiwan has done that and they set a very good example in every way and not just in LGBT rights, but in democracy,” he said.
Wong was clear about his message to the US, warning “what is happening to Hong Kong won’t just happen to Hong Kongers, it will happen to the free world, the West, all those crackdowns, all those censorships, all those crackdowns on freedom of the press, all this crackdown will spread to the West.”
Wong’s music is banned in Mainland China because of his outspokenness against Beijing.
Like other recent notable Hong Kong visitors including activist Joshua Wong who testified before Congress with Ho, Wong is looking for the US to come to his city’s aid.
Wong tightened his body and his arms against himself, his most physically expressive moment throughout the hour and a half interview, and said, “Whoever wants to have a relationship with China, no matter what kind of relationship, a business relationship, an artistic relationship, or even in the academic world, they feel the pressure, they feel that they have to be quiet sometimes. So we all, we are all facing this situation, because China is so big they really want the free world to compromise.”
(These remarks came just weeks before China’s angry response to support for Hong Kong protesters voiced by the Houston Rockets’ general manager that could threaten significant investment in the National Basketball Association by that nation.)
Wong added, “America is the biggest democracy in the world, and they really have to use their influence to help Hong Kong. I hope they know this is not only a Hong Kong issue. This will become a global issue because China really wants to rule the world.”
Of that prospect, he said, “That’s very scary.”