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Brian C. Thompson is a senior lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the author of Anthems and Minstrel Shows, a biography of Calixa Lavallée, the composer of O Canada.

In one of Casablanca’s many classic scenes, the patrons of Rick’s Café, urged on by Czech resistance leader Victor Laszlo, sing a passionate rendition of France’s national anthem, La Marseillaise. Their purpose is to drown out a group of Nazi officers singing Germany’s Die Wacht am Rhein. Yes, it was fictional, but it captured the moment. It was 1942, and Germany was occupying France. French refugees in Morocco raised their voices to assert their identity and determination.

This month, we have witnessed a similar politically inspired rivalry in Hong Kong. After a long summer, anti-government forces have rallied around a march song written over the course of the months-long and leaderless demonstrations, Glory to Hong Kong. Protesters have sung it in the streets and, more notably, in the shopping malls. And in those malls they have been met by supporters of Beijing – both local Hong Kong people as well as people from mainland China – who have countered with the Chinese anthem, March of the Volunteers.

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Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters sing Glory to Hong Kong.Vincent Yu/The Associated Press

Given the violence that Hong Kong has seen this summer, music-making would seem like a positive turn from the tear gas and truncheons. The international media has picked up on the story, no doubt happy to have something different to report. But if music seems like a mere momentary diversion from the real story, we’re missing the meaning and message that such anthems hold. But if these songs seem to be just a momentary diversion from the real story, we may be overlooking the ideas that music can convey.

As with La Marseillaise, March of the Volunteers was written in a time of national crisis. Composed by the young musician Nie Er, with lyrics by Tian Han, it was heard in the 1935 patriotic film, Children of Troubled Times. If the song lacks originality, it compensates with fervour. As in the French anthem, the lyrics are a call to arms, with the opening phrase sung in the form of a fanfare. What’s more, with an overall range of just over an octave, it’s easy to sing.

Glory to Hong Kong is an altogether different type of anthem. Like O Canada and God Save the Queen, it’s a hymn. Like those songs, it sounds best when sung in four-part harmony, but is rarely heard in that form. That has not prevented the song from catching on among protesters in a big way.

The words of Glory to Hong Kong are drawn from the chants heard on the streets this summer. The idea of freedom is central to each verse and to the refrain. The text may not be first-rate poetry, but that hasn’t prevented the pro-democracy crowd from embracing it. This success has come at a cost, however. The threat of violence has forced the composer to maintain his anonymity (referring to himself only as “Thomas”). That may be prudent. Even Mr. Tian died in jail during the Cultural Revolution, charged with being a “counterrevolutionary”. (Mr. Nie died accidentally, by drowning.)

In an interview with the BBC, “Thomas” claimed that he wrote the song to reinvigorate the movement. In this, he has succeeded. In addition to being sung at political rallies, Glory to Hong Kong has been heard in the context we most often associate with national songs – a sporting event. At a World Cup qualifying match between Hong Kong and Iran on Sept. 10, soccer fans at the Hong Kong Stadium sang Glory to Hong Kong at half-time, and before the match began, supporters of the home team drowned out the official playing of March of the Volunteers with a vociferous chorus of boos.

But what is a national song? The call for freedom in Glory to Hong Kong is not a call for independence. Very few of those protesting for democracy have advocated for a separate state. That does not prevent the song from being “national.” As Indigenous people and settlers in Canada know, a country may be commonly referred to as a nation, but a nation is a people. A state may be home to multiple nations.

References to the landscape that a nation occupies are central to national songs, and they have not been lacking in this summer’s turmoil. An often heard refrain of counter-protesters is that “Hong Kong belongs to China”. After democracy advocates held a human-chain protest at Hong Kong’s iconic Lion Rock, pro-government supporters staked their claim to the same hilltop the next night, carrying Chinese flags and singing March of the Volunteers.

Culture and identity are also at the heart of the conflict, and it’s revealed through the languages of these two anthems. The people of Hong Kong are deeply attached to the Cantonese language and to the use of classical Chinese characters. They have seen the Central Government funnel Mandarin-speaking immigrants into Hong Kong, and designer stores cater to Mainland visitors with signage written in simplified characters. Singing Glory to Hong Kong in Cantonese affirms a sense of identity that demands fighting for.

What happens next remains to be seen. Glory to Hong Kong may be winning for now. But will it be remembered in a year’s time? Casablanca offers a cautionary note. After the Nazis lose that song competition, they go on to put Rick’s Café out of business. Still, the film ends with a sense of optimism – one that many in Hong Kong need right now.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Cantonese as a dialect. It is a language.

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