Twenty-four years ago, on the evening that the U.K. handed political control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Hong Kong leading man and Cantopop superstar Andy Lau performed in state broadcaster CCTV’s song-and-dance spectacular to mark the occasion.
As the camera panned through an audience waving both Chinese and Hong Kong flags, he sang a dulcet duet with Chinese singer Na Ying of one of iconic Taiwanese singer-songwriter Lo Ta-yu’s most famous songs, “Pearl of the Orient.”
Lo had written the song in 1986 as an ode to Hong Kong and its unique identity as a haven and hub between east and west. The song nods to the territory’s troubles under British colonial rule, and implores it not to lose sight of its Chinese identity. At a time of growing anxiety about Hong Kong’s future after the handover, its lyrics posed the question: “Pearl of the Orient, my love/is your elegance as romantic as ever?”
Lo viewed the song as a tribute to the city’s uncertain fate, and sang it at a 2014 concert in Hong Kong to express his solidarity with the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests. At the time, mainland sympathizers seeking to evade strict censorship also posted the song or its lyrics as a way of covertly expressing their support.
This week, as part of the lead-up to Thursday’s politically paramount 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s ruling Communist party, Lau stepped onto the same CCTV soundstage to join Na in a new rendition of “Pearl of the Orient, 24 years later.
This time, however, Lo’s ballad had lost its sense of poetic ambiguity that had made it popular over the years with both Hong Kong protesters and die-hard Chinese nationalists.
In the context of a program entitled “Praise for the Centennial,” the song became a triumphant anthem about the legitimacy of Beijing’s rule over the city.
For two decades, the July 1 handover date — which coincides with the Chinese Communist Party’s anniversary — has been marked in Hong Kong by protests, often attended by tens of thousands. Demonstrations were cancelled this year for the first time. Police squadrons arrested at least 20 passersby, while police vans, water cannon trucks, and armored vehicles patrolled the streets.
On Lau’s CCTV program, Chinese flags abounded but there wasn’t a Hong Kong flag in sight. A breathlessly earnest master of ceremonies introduced Lau’s number while standing in front of an oil painting of the handover moment, proclaiming: “Beloved motherland, Hong Kong has finally returned to your embrace!”
‘Defend All of China!’
Lau is not the only Hong Konger to have presented his well-wishes to the Communist Party.
In an enormous anniversary stage show at the Bird’s Nest National Stadium broadcast Thursday, Jackie Chan starred in a rousing rendition of “Defending the Yellow River,” the seventh movement of the classic patriotic “Yellow River Cantata,” composed during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Standing center stage surrounded by thousands of performers dressed as soldiers, he joined forces with Taiwanese singer Angela Chang and Liu Naiqi, a tenor from Macau, to belt out the rousing chorus: “Defend your hometown, defend the Yellow River… defend all of China!”
In a keynote speech that same day, Chinese President Xi Jinping hammered home China’s “unswerving historical mission” to “reunite” independently governed Taiwan with the mainland, by force if necessary.
The “Yellow River Cantata” was banned for years in Taiwan for political reasons and wasn’t staged there until 2010.
Meanwhile, on social media platform Weibo, Jackie Chan retweeted a CCTV anniversary meme declaring that “the people have faith, the nation has hope, the country is strong.” He captioned it with his own commentary: “At 100 years you’ve stepped into your prime. Sending wishes that the motherland will be thriving and prosperous, with all the people living in peace.”
Action star Donnie Yen also actively expressed his support for the Party. “If the country strong, we are strong,” he wrote, posting a video montage of historic Communist Party milestones that featured the 1997 Hong Kong handover.
Others — including renowned auteur Wong Kar-wai and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” star Chow Yun-fat — declined to post or retweet any messaging. They did, however, appear to express at least nominal support by changing their Weibo account cover photo to a stock red and gold image announcing the Party’s 100th anniversary. Wong is currently working on at least three China-based projects.
‘Mulan’ Star Liu Yifei, Fan Bingbing, ‘Better Days’ Stars, and Others Chime In
Other Hong Kong artists who posted patriotic wishes for the Party include: singer Faye Wong’s partner Nicholas Tse Ting-fung (“New Police Story”) and his ex-wife Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi (“Shaolin Soccer”), singer William Chan, singer Joey Yung, Cantopop duo Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung; and actors Miriam Yeung and Hawick Lau.
From Taiwan, other artists besides singer Chang who congratulated the Party include Ouyang Nana, Vincent Chiao, and wuxia TV actor Steve Ma Jingtao, who went the extra mile to post a handwritten letter. Taiwanese Mandopop star Jiro Wang expressed his respects in a post about how he had just received his vaccine in China, writing: “I thank my motherland for making me feel safer.”
Most Chinese stars have also expressed their political loyalty via statements or reposts of government memes and videos.
They include, among many others: Liu Yifei, star of Disney’s “Mulan”; Zhang Ziyi; Huang Bo; Li Bingbing (“The Meg”); Jing Tian (“The Great Wall”); Zhou Dongyu and Jackson Yee, the stars of Hong Kong’s Oscar nominated drama “Better Days”; and disgraced starlets Zheng Shuang and Fan Bingbing. Comments on such posts on Weibo are either been removed entirely or censored to selectively show only positive, patriotic messages by a Weibo function intended to “combat online rumors and ensure the objectivity and truthfulness of information.”
Accounts for directors Chen Kaige, Feng Xiaogang and once-banned helmer Lou Ye did not actively post patriotic content, but did change their cover photos to the same stock red and gold commemoration image.
That photo on Lou’s page is juxtaposed incongruously against his wordless last post, from February 2020. It is the image of a single candle, able to evade censorship and stand as a defiant commemoration of the death of COVID-19 whistleblower Li Wenliang, who authorities had tried to silence.