5min to Understand Occupy Central's Theme Song

Reporting on the ground in Hong Kong, various media have written about protesters singing the “Do you Hear the People Sing” tune from Les Misérables (see here, here, and here). I’m sure that is the case that it was sung, and sung in various places in and around town at the protests sites around the city (including the latest one to sprout up, in Tsim Tsa Tsui) in the #occupycentral civil disobedience movement.

But I’m not sure that song is the anthem of the protest. There’s another tune that is a much likelier contender.

Over a couple days of wandering in and out of the protest sites, and staying glued to NOW channel 331 after hours, with its live feed trained on the Admiralty protest site- there is clearly a rival song, a much more familiar tune to anyone who has spent some time in Hong Kong. It is “光輝 (Glorious Days), the 1992 ballad from Beyond, with lyrics penned by Wong Ka Kui.

Gotta Love 90's Karaoke

“Do you Hear the People Sing?” has the feel of a rebuttal to “let them eat cake.” People get that. People get the tacit labor relations and class struggle issues that Victor Hugo was scratching at. But it doesn’t quite capture much particular Hong Kong-ness; and for that reason it can’t be an anthem.

“Glorious Days” by Beyond, was a tribute of sorts to Nelson Mandela.

An excerpt goes like this: (for English Lyrics video, see here)

hak sik gei fu kap ta dik yi yi
Dark skin gives him the meaning

是一生奉献, 肤色斗争中
si yat sang fung hin, fu sik dau jang jung
of his life’s devotion to the color struggle.”

nin yuet ba yung yau bin jou sat heui
The years have changed possession into loss

pei gyun dik seung ngan dai jeuk kei mong
This set of fatiqued eyes still carries hope.”

I remember this song as a primary school kid in Hong Kong. In fact, I was lucky enough to see Beyond perform in 1990 at a corporate function I got to attend with my family. This was just as they were blowing up, and by all accounts it was an amazing show. I remember it vividly, even though I was shy of a decade old at the time. Indeed, the guitar riff in “Glorious Days” has got to be known in every single self-respecting KTV/Karaoke joint Asia-wide.

“Glorious Days” reveals little about Hong Kong per se. However, why is it being sung in the streets? Why are kids like the impromptu group I saw late this afternoon holding their smartphones next to bullhorns, singing along to a crackly youtube video of it? Does it reveal something more about #OccupyCentral, or the so-called emerging moniker of the #UmbrellaMovement?

Here are some more bars:

gam tin ji yau chan lau dik keui hok
Today there is only the remains of a shell

ying jip gwong fai seui yuet
To welcome the glorious years”

And then the most famous line:

fung yue jung pou gan ji yau
Holding fast to freedom in the wind and rain.”

This is the line that read as if a scroll unfurled and cascaded down from the Admiralty center pedestrian bridges.

That is the line from the song on the orange banner


yat sang ging gwo pong wong dik jang jat
A lifetime of loss and struggle

ji seun ho goi bin mei loi
Believing in one’s ability to change the future

man seui yau nang jou dou
Who else can accomplish this?”

Anthems are usually only diagnosed after-the-fact. After all, how often do you watch a movie at the cinema and while sitting your seat identify the ‘it’ song. Maybe you have a really good ear for these things. But the melody that defines the movie is often something you discover later- one leitmotif leads to another, and you kind of subconsciously string together your own imaginary movie-theme rendition in your mind’s eye. Then finally you hear the real song later, and it sticks.

Beyond’s “Glorious Days” is a better contender for anthem. Maybe it already is the anthem. On one hand it is global and universal, caring about the far away “color struggle” and an abstract principle of justice (pun on the Color revolutions obviously not intended, but then again Ka Kui was a pretty prescient dude), on the other it is local and particular, “This set of fatiqued eyes still carries hope” (emphasis added).

The most Hong Kong aspect of the ballad is how it handles class. My reading of the song’s meaning is that rich/poor/in-between have no natural conflicts. There is one line for the poor: “A lifetime of loss and struggle;” one line for the wealthy: “To welcome the glorious years,” and one line for the middle class: “Believing in one’s ability to change the future.” 

The song emerged during the grunge era of the early 90’s. Beyond was one of these HK rock pioneers, probably with a variety of different influences, with Japan and Seattle both well-represented on the roster. But despite simpler times back then- there is nothing twee about those lines. It retains edginess without being anti-establishment; it appraises things for what they are, without judgment. And in all of that, in the balance and modesty, there is something very Hong Kong.

And I suspect these are 2 fears that underpin #OccupyCentral #UmbrellaMovement, indeed for Hong Kongers of all stripes- including those who do not support it. #1 is class conflicts between haves and have-nots boiling over; #2 is the question whether Hong Kong will be forced to choose between Cosmopolitan OR Local, a big handicap in a Both/And world we live in- in the Both/And world Beyond was singing about- was anthem for.