In the propaganda war between protesters in Hong Kong and the government in Beijing, Tommy Yuen is an unlikely hero.
The 39-year-old singer admits he’s something of a ‘has been,’ and almost ‘never was.’
“My career wasn’t really successful,” he concedes. Back in 2002, Yuen was a member of a Hong Kong Cantonese-language boy band called E-Kids. (Hong Kong’s version of America’s Hanson or Wave.) And to be fair, they did have some popular songs.
But after a few years of flirting with success, E-Kids’ star burned out. The group disbanded and Yuen gave up on his music career.
“It’s upsetting when you realize your dream has failed,” he says.
WATCH: Hong Kong police clash with masked protesters at Yuen Long station
“It’s a bad feeling because, in my heart, I’m still very in love with music.”
Yuen certainly never expected that, 15 years later, he’d be inspired to come out of retirement by a political protest.
“I just want to support Hong Kong people,” he says.
“China is trying to make people submit, eating away their freedom. We are fighting against this, because we don’t want to be casualties of communism. We are born and bred in Hong Kong.”
After largely ignoring Hong Kong’s mass pro-democracy movement for weeks, Beijing has recently deployed its propaganda machine, in an apparent attempt to persuade residents of the semi-autonomous Chinese city that the protesters are basically terrorists and their cause is lost.
Beijing’s propaganda arsenal includes music — specifically, gangsta rap.
CD Rev is a Chinese nationalist rap group that is reportedly sponsored by the government. They recently released a music video mocking and condemning Hong Kong’s demonstrators, with rhymes such as: “Hey democracy, why you always hiding somewhere so hard to see?”, and, “Girls screaming, shops smashed, are you still bragging about justice?”
The raps are in English, Mandarin and Cantonese; the latter is the language most commonly-spoken in Hong Kong, a city that remains divided over the nearly three-month-long protest movement against a proposed — and now suspended — extradition bill that could have seen Hong Kong suspects extradited to mainland China to face trial.
Last week, when it looked like Hong Kong’s protests might finally be losing steam, Yuen felt inspired to produce a short video, edited together with pictures from the protests. And he added his own soundtrack, a song he’d written for E-Kids 17 years earlier, which encourages the listener to boldly chase their dreams.
WATCH: Recent coverage of the Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations on Globalnews.ca
He posted the video and never expected he would receive such an overwhelming response. ”Many many people stop me on the street say, ‘Thank you for my support. Thank you for my song. Thank you for my music.’”
Overnight, it seems, his song has become an unofficial anthem for the movement.
“I want to cry because this is my old song,” Yuen said, “but now it has the new meaningful of all Hong Kong people.”
He says he hopes to play a free concert in the same streets where demonstrators are now protesting, after Beijing bows to their demands.