Umbrella as symbol of inclusiveness

by Daniel C. Tsang

A conversation with documentarian Evans Chan on censorship and Hong Kong's democratic
Umbrella Movement of 2014


Evans Chan is a New York-based playwright and critic, and a leading independent filmmaker from Hong Kong. He has made narrative features and documentaries, including 

Time Out Hong Kong (March, 2012) named Chan’s directorial debut, To Liv(e) (1991), one of the hundred greatest Hong Kong films. Chan’s award-winning films have been shown at the Berlin, Rotterdam, London, Moscow, Vancouver, San Francisco and Taiwan Golden Horse film festivals, among others.

Raise the Umbrellas (2016) is an in-depth, almost two-hour documentary of the 2014 79-day uprising and street occupation in Hong Kong over the lack of democratic options for its residents[1] [open notes in new window] Rod Stoneman, former Chief Executive of the Irish Film Board, found Umbrellas "articulate, intelligent and moving." French critic Jean-Michel Frodon praised it as a "powerful film connecting the past and present [of Chinese democratic movements,] and the multigenerational phenomenon" of the Hong Kong occupation.

Umbrellas was released twenty years after the former British Crown Colony was turned over to China by Britain. The film starts off with a brief look at the colonization of Hong Kong in 1842 as a result of the Opium War. Only in the few years before the 1997 decolonization of Hong Kong did the British embark on expanding the electorate and make China promise to fully democratize the legislature and the Chief Executive office after 1997. But after China restricted electoral reform in 2014 by proposing to vet candidates for Chief Executive elections, massive protests erupted in the streets. Those protests and 79 days of occupying major thoroughfares became known as the Umbrella Movement, when demonstrators used umbrellas to protect themselves against tear gas, pepper spray, and police batons.

Key figures mentioned in the interview are three in the pan-democracy camp:

On the opposing side is pro-Beijing, former legislator Jasper Tsang, who presided over the Legislative Council during Occupy.

In the interview, one of the topics Evans Chan discusses concerns the roles languages play in Hong Kong, where Cantonese remains the prevailing, indigenous language used by the populace at large. Chan, however interviewed these four key figures in English, rather than Cantonese, with Chinese traditional-character subtitling provided. He explains why.

Overall, the persistent use of Cantonese in Hong Kong, rather than Mandarin, is tied to a rising and enhanced sense of locally-based, Hong Kong identity, especially among the younger members of the populace. The latest poll (December, 2017), from the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme (HKUPOP), shows clearly that only 0.3% of Hong Kong’s youth under 30 identify as “Chinese,” with an additional 7% identifying as “Chinese in Hong Kong.” Of all polled, only 30.7% identify as Chinese or Chinese in Hong Kong. An overwhelming 89.9%, however, of those under 30 identify as “Hong Konger”or “Hong Konger in China,” with 67.6% of all polled identifying as such (https://www.hkupop.hku.hk/english/popexpress/ethnic/) .

This interview is by Daniel C. Tsang, a current visiting Fulbright research scholar based at Chinese University of Hong Kong Library and an honorary research fellow at HKUPOP. This article began as an oral interview first conducted on 10 November 2017 in Central Plaza, Wanchai, Hong Kong for Tsang’s Subversity Online podcast (http://www.kuci.org/podcastfiles/600/Sv171120.mp3). Parts of the podcast interview (e.g. Chan’s take on the Hong Kong independence movement and on film archiving) have been dropped, and the transcript has been further edited for readability, while additional email exchanges with Chan have been seamlessly incorporated here.

Note also that the interviewer is not related to Jasper Tsang.


Daniel Tsang: So when did you know you were going to do the film [Raise the Umbrellas]? Also, being based in New York with trips back to Hong Kong, how did you handle the logistics in such an intercontinental collaborative effort?

Evans Chan: Yes, logistics are complex, and not just because of the physical distance between Hong Kong and New York. That's why it took two years to finish Raise the Umbrellas. The idea of making this film first occurred to me after the inception of Benny Tai's Occupy Central proposal in 2013. And I conducted my first interviews with student leaders Joshua Wong, Yvonne Leung and Vivian Yip in 2014, while shooting The Rose of the Name, my documentary about Dung Kai-cheung, Hong Kong’s leading novelist of the moment. Wong et al were all aware that something was going to happen in Hong Kong. I asked Nate Chan, my assistant director for Rose, to track Occupy events with a view toward making such a documentary. That's why when the director's cut of The Rose of the Name was premiered in Hong Kong in November of 2014, it already featured the tear-gassing footage that triggered the Umbrella Movement.

I was in Hong Kong through the month of November, visiting the Occupy zones as often as I could and conducting the majority of the interviews you saw in the film. Back in the US, I was interviewing international scholars such as Arif Dirlik, Andrew Nathan, and Ho-fung Hung. One interview with Benny Tai took place at Washington Square in New York after his workshop at the NYU Law School. Naturally I was aware that having just one camera—my cameraman's or Nate's—at any given time could not capture effectively the Umbrella Movement with its considerable duration and 3-zone spread, so I searched additional footage by recruiting videographers who have filmed Occupy.

Nora Lam came in as my assistant director/collaborator when I was back in HK to film the political showdown over Beijing's "universal suffragist" proposal at the Legislative Council. As the student reporter of HKU's Campus TV in 2014, and having made her own Umbrella short, Nora Lam was a great asset. (She has since matured into an excellent documentarian in her own right.)

My other Occupy collaborators, Thomas Leung, Kylie Tung, and Fox Fung, have contributed important zone footage. It goes without saying that archival research was indispensable. Significant material came from institutions such as SocREC, Apple Daily, and Delight Media. An unexpectedly tough struggle involved rights-clearance for Anthony Wong's concert footage, and that clip of Common giving a shout out to Hong Kong at the 2015 Oscar ceremony. And I ended up seeking legal advice from a First Amendment lawyer in New York for ensuring fair use. Those battles are long and complex, maybe let's go into them some other time.  

DT: The film's pretty long.

EC: A lot of other Umbrella films are long, even longer—Yellowing runs for two and a half hours, Almost a Revolution is three hours long. I’m fully aware of most people’s attention span in this internet age; therefore, when I started editing Raise the Umbrellas, I decided that it should not go over two hours…Now it’s just below two hours.

DT: Did you have to translate much of what you interviewed into English?

EC: No…It depends on what you mean by translating them… Of course, subtitles...

DT: The speeches.

EC: You know I interviewed Benny Tai, Martin Lee, Emily Lau, and Jasper Tsang in English…There have been some reaction to such a language decision among the Hong Kong audience. Of course, I don't want to make Hong Kong audience feel that this film is not made for them…
The fact is: I hope my interviewees and the Hong Kong audience won't mind me saying that. I actually feel that Benny and Martin and Emily speak better English than Cantonese... Anyway, they seemed to articulate themselves with more intellectual clarity when they spoke in English. We bilingual folks know that when one operates in more than one language, one draws upon different cultural assumptions depending on the language. While it’s important to “adapt one’s language” for different people, there is a danger of simplifying too much when these activists/politicians speak Cantonese to the grassroots community. Besides, I think that the local media or journalists are not too interested in citing certain references that they assume the readers are not interested in, or are not familiar with. For example, I always feel that Benny Tai’s reference to Martin Luther King’s Letters from Birmingham Jail as an important source for his conceptualization of a Hong Kong civil disobedience movement might not register with primarily Cantonese-speaking constituents.

DT: Right, sure.

EC: And by not referencing it, you actually are not seeing Hong Kong as part of the international political community, or as an important cultural crossroads where new ideas, concepts and movements arose since the 19th century.

DT: Right.

EC: So I feel that by getting them, especially for Martin and Benny, to speak in English to explain their intellectual sources about their understanding of civil disobedience, to explain how these concepts play out in Hong Kong and how they conceive democratic movement in Hong Kong, are important for us to understand the significance and lineage of the Umbrella Movement. One may say the Cantonese/Chinese vocabulary still hasn't quite caught up with their discussions. Don't forget that terms like civil disobedience or non-violent struggles are still relatively new entries in Cantonese/Chinese political parlance. That's why I asked them to speak in English. What I can do is to use Chinese subtitles to elucidate those concepts. Meanwhile, please remember that the three people I just mentioned are typical of what I would describe as the “cream of the crop.”

DT: From the colonial period.

EC: From the colonial era. They are “elites”…not exactly economic and social elites, but intellectual elites who ventured into politics. They are all people who have been shaped by the best that the colonial era has to offer. And that comes with certain understanding [of]…the central issues, the struggles, and the concept of democracy. Democracy—as a procedure and a norm practiced by some leading Western democracies—is not a homegrown concept. It did not come from the Chinese’s own culture. It did not come from the local vernacular culture. By that I’m not implying that Chinese culture doesn’t have its homegrown vision of political ideals. I’ve tried to address those issues in my films about Kang Youwei, notably in Datong: The Great Society.

DT: It didn't come from May 4th movement.

EC: It did not. Even the May 4th movement was influenced by certain international trends. So if getting these folks to speak in English can better elucidate the discussions, I'll go for that.

On the other hand, when I interview scholars like Arif Dirlik and Andrew Nathan you don't expect them to speak Cantonese… They can speak Mandarin. But is that the best medium for them to be interviewed? Finally, Raise the Umbrellas is a kind of bilingual documentary, though more in Cantonese than in English. Naturally, a number of interviewees express themselves better in Cantonese. For example, I don't always expect a young student Occupier to be speaking fluent English. That's where the language decision comes in concerning the interview.

DT: I had the same issue with that. I had to give a talk at the Hong Kong Reader, the cultural studies bookshop on the Sai Yeung Choi Street [in Kowloon], and they asked me to speak in Cantonese. But I'm talking about social activism and using some social science terms… I grew up here but I went to university in the United States and so I just didn't know how to express that sufficiently well in Cantonese.

EC: You cannot do simultaneous translation on your feet like that, maybe given some time to think about it [you can].. And that's exactly the issue we are talking about. If you asked Benny, Martin, and Emily questions in Cantonese, and let them switch to their familiar [Cantonese] terrain for most people in Hong Kong, some ideas would be lost…

I mean certain Chinese terms also have a different linguistic development in various regions [Hong Kong, Taiwan, Chinese mainland] .... Probably because of social media and the Internet, every linguistic system is evolving very rapidly. And at times to make a film for the local audience as well as for the international audience is a tricky proposition.

Meanwhile, we saw a top-down movement/policy from Beijing to mainlandize [Hong Kong]… meaning to really treat Cantonese as less and less the dominant language in daily use…And yet with social media, it's always about a vernacular communication traffic. Because of its immediacy, its mode of instant exchanges, social media intensifies local/vernacular identities. That’s why I think increasingly we seem to be witnessing the failure of so-called cultural “assimilation” among immigrants in most host countries in our contemporary world. The pressure, the mechanism or the incentive to downplay one’s own native culture in order to belong to the host culture is mostly missing. Everybody can carry her/his native culture in her/his pocket in that tiny smart phone. Today Hong Kong’s cultural conflicts with China arise partly from that intensification in both directions—I mean mainlandization as a public policy, and localization in private communication. The intensification of the local identity ultimately will have a profoundly public, political, or governance implication.[2]

DT: In your dramatic feature of 2001, The Map of Sex and Love, you took a close look at a personal gay relationship set on Lamma Island, Hong Kong. In the current documentary Raise the Umbrellas, you highlight the important role queer singers played in the Umbrella Movement. How have societal attitudes changed between then and now. Has the “personal” now become “political” in Hong Kong?

EC: To answer your question, maybe I should backtrack to talking about my directorial debut, To Liv(e) (1991), in which Anthony Wong, the queer Cantonpop icon and a leading activist during the Umbrella Movement, played the tortured lover in a relationship with an older woman, which is a trans-generational relationship that was socially ostracized and disapproved by the character’s family. That plot detail wasn't an invention but based on a real story that I've heard. The song I used in To Liv(e)Forbidden Colors—was one of Anthony's signature tunes. It alluded to the pressure on relationships outside the social norm, which of course include gay and lesbian relationships. To Liv(e) was the first film I collaborated with Anthony, early on in our careers.

By the time I made The Map of Sex and Love during the turn of the millennia, Anthony was my first choice to play Wei-ming the overseas-educated gay protagonist. However, Anthony had already lost interest in acting, so I cast Bernardo Chow for that role. There are three interrelated stories in The Map, two of which are about the two gay characters. The story of Larry, the gay dancer, stems from his vengeful reaction to sexual repression. The drama of Wei-ming, a diasporic Hong Kong artist, is a) political/philosophical—involving an under-known Holocaust connection in Asia; and b) familial: Obviously he has come out to his father, but did Pa get it?

I guess The Map of Sex and Love explores both the meaning of guilt and the politics of recognition. Whereas, Umbrellas seems to be a "straight"—pun intended—political film. After all, it's about the good old fight for democracy. I found it most interesting that after seeing Umbrellas, so many audience members outside of Hong Kong have asked me—why is there a LGBT strand in the film? It strongly suggests that LGBT politics are still much ghettoized, outside the purview of "the mainstream," as though such struggles automatically belong to a subset, an ancillary part of the project of democracy. But why? Aren't equal rights a central concern of democracy?

In fact, one of the most remarkable phenomena within the Umbrella Movement were the unapologetic voices from a lesbian (Denise Ho) and a gay man (Anthony Wong)—the loudest, but almost the lone voices from Hong Kong's entertainment industry. Together they turned an emerging singer-songwriter's (Ah Pan’s) composition, Raise the Umbrellas, into the anthem of the Umbrella Movement.[3] They performed the song live at Occupy zones and created an ensemble recording posted online that has been heard by tens of thousands of people. Eventually that song was named the 2014 Favorite Song of The Year by Commercial Radio. It's not surprising that I essentially named the film after that song. For taking a stand, both Ho and Wong have been professionally penalized by the Beijing government. I think what distinguished their action from the old gay politics paradigm has to do with them being there, as openly gay citizens, to fight for democracy itself, not just addressing anti-discrimination or equal rights.

As a longtime New York resident, I had witnessed the unfolding of the same-sex marriage struggles in the US. You know for a while, the African American community resented the LBGTQ community using the civil rights movement as a model for their struggles. Apparently, one disfavored group doesn't necessarily sympathize with the plight of other disfavored groups. But there was no such enmity in Hong Kong between the LGBT activists and the student protest leaders, who actually showed up at the Pride parade—which took place during Occupy—to deliver a statement of support. Strikingly, Hong Kong democratic activists' coalition-building has turned the idea of "umbrella" into the literal symbol of inclusiveness.

Let's go back to my collaborations with Anthony Wong to gauge the progress of LGBT rights in Hong Kong. Anthony's Forbidden Colors, which alludes to taboo sex, was released in 1988, something like a quarter century before Anthony outed himself publicly at his own concert in 2012. And Raise the Umbrellas is the first film since To Liv(e) when I had a chance to work with him again. But look! He was playing himself—a cutting-edge performer, music-maker and democracy advocate who happens to be gay. I was quite moved by this actor/director "reunion" after two decades. 

Denise Ho, first out lesbian singer in the Chinese speaking world. Anthony Wong—many years to sing "Forbidden Colors" as a gay man.