Hong Kong: Where anarchists and blackbirds sing about freedom

Brief report on anarchist elements in the Hong Kong activist scene ca. 2009, focusing on Lenny Guo of the band Blackbird, veteran of the 70s Front.

Submitted by husunzi on October 6, 2009

Also deals with HK independent media, the Social Movement Resource Centre, and the 2005 WTO protests. By Norman Nawrocki of Rhythm Activism. Published in Fifth Estate #381 (2009). Posted here with permission. Photos in PDF

Hong Kong, a steamy, enchanting, green pearl of an island with an amazingly
efficient public transit system is also the ultimate temple to last gasp,
fast buck, crass consumerism.

Mega-towering, teetering, multi-national corporate headquarters ablaze with
over-sized neon logos that are sometimes lost in the clouds, dominate the
skyline, but can't quite obliterate the dreamy and defiant mountains behind

Below, in the pedestrian and car jammed streets, omnipresent 7-Eleven
convenience stores push porn and beer, while the moneyed class shop in
ultra-chic designer boutique malls, buy jewel-encrusted Vespas, intricate
mammoth ivory carvings, or order giant, endangered species lobster for
dinner. But if you're local and homeless, an accommodating Kowloon slumlord
just across on the mainland will rent you a five-foot long metal cage to
sleep in overnight. On a recent two week Hong Kong tour where I played live
music shows and gave a Creative Resistance workshop, I was fortunate to meet
artists, activists, anarchists, and others who resist the temptations to
buy, buy, buy, but still put in 12 hour work days, six days a week, eat on
the run, and survive the frenetic pressure-cooker lifestyle that defines
daily existence.

Activists in Hong Kong have overloaded agendas fighting for social housing
for the un-housed, for minimum wages for migrant worker Filipina domestics
(imagine a 400 square foot high rise condo inhabited by a middle class
couple and their status-defining live-in maid who sleeps on a padded bench),
for solutions to the suffocating pollution drifting in from mainland
factories, and seemingly stubborn, public indifference.

At first, they said, activists were having a tough time reminding locals of
the recent 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing
when thousands of people were killed by Chinese troops. As elsewhere, Hong
Kong citizens are obviously more concerned about surviving the current
economic meltdown then fighting for anyone's rights.

On the mainland, past the border, discussing the student-led Tiananmen
democratic movement and crackdown is still a political taboo, and anyone who
tries suffers police repression. At a University of Hong Kong forum,
students debated whether it was in fact a massacre. But to everyone's
surprise, the day of the actual anniversary, the public responded to a call
for a candle light vigil 150,000 strong.

Activists are calling 2009 a "sensitive year," since it also marks the 60th
anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Everyone
agrees that since the transfer of power in Hong Kong from British rule in
1997, China is tightening its authoritarian vice-grip on existing political
freedoms, yet indefatigable, unbending local anarchists, like Lenny Guo,
still raise the black flag high.

A veteran Hong Kong anarcho singer/songwriter (from the legendary band
Blackbird), journalist, documentary filmmaker, and organizer of the annual
Freedom Music &Arts Fair, Lenny spoke to me about anarchism in Hong Kong

In 1995, Lenny had invited our Montreal band, Rhythm Activism, to contribute
a track to a Blackbird compilation CD, called Uniracial Subversion. After
years of correspondence, I finally met him in person on this visit and
experienced his phenomenal talent live on stage.

Lenny calls himself an "artivist," a term he coined, he says, "to identify
those who use art to direct activism. I also call myself a dysfunctional
musician, antilinguistical poet, an impromptu organizer, and a true-life

Asked how he would describe the Hong Kong anarchist scene, Lenny said,
"There is no scene in terms of anarchist culture or activities, no
publication, no affinity groups, no gatherings. Your performance is a weirdo
thing for most people (I performed radical spoken word pieces in a Hong Kong
in-die art centre, the ACO, accompanying myself on a looped, sampled violin.
Lenny and friends played before and with me). There are young students and
activists that have anarchist tendencies, but the history or idea is never
discussed in any form since our group disbanded around the late 1980s."

Lenny was referring to a large collective of Hong Kong radicals, anarchists
and other leftists, that ran the Black and Red bookshop and published the
Chinese-language tabloid, The 70s. This group included a smaller, loose
collective of four or five people who published the widely distributed and
highly influential anti-authoritarian journal, Minus 8 which started in
1976. The journal's title changed yearly and referred to the number of years
remaining before 1984.

"After we closed the bookshop and stopped publishing the papers," he said,
"we started the People's Theatre and Blackbird. The theatre and the band
eventually split, owing to different stances on the band's insistence of
self-reliance survival and the theatre group accepting government and
foundation funding, and went their separate ways. The theatre ceased its
activities long before the [political power] hand over, while the band
disbanded in 1999 after finishing the last recording "Singing in the Dead of
the Night" (Broken Wing Music, Hong Kong). The on/off declamations about
anarchism by our band were always met with apathy," he said.

"However, I plan to follow up your visit to revive some local discussions
about anarchist ideas by publishing a tabloid later and activating the site,
anarchina.org which has been set up for a while but without any content.
I've since collected a wealth of interviews to upload and publish with noted
scholars like Arif Dirik, Ronald Creagh, a young Seattle anarchist, and the
anarchist heading the China operation of an international environmental

Although there is no longer an anarchist bookstore or even an infoshop in
Hong Kong, Lenny spoke about the Social Movement Resource Centre (SMRC)
where he once worked as the coordinator, and the [Indymedia inspired]
INMEDIA centre as projects that attract individual and small groups of

"The SMRC is a centre which is now autonomous from the direction of the Hong
Kong Federation of Students, a federation comprised of all the student
unions of the universities in Hong Kong. The SMRC has a long history of
defying the management of the central student body. It is now more like a
group of people who provide support sometimes when there are actions about
various issues, most notably during the 2005 World Trade Organization
protests in Hong Kong," he said.

Several thousand protestors took to the streets during the WTO meeting in
some of the worst street violence Hong Kong had seen in decades. Among the
more memorable photographic images: Korean peasants using their bare hands
to snatch police shields from riot cops who had attacked them.

One of Lenny's ongoing projects is organizing the annual Freedom Music &
Arts Fair that assembles a dozen or more performing artists, writers and
musicians, including Lenny himself, on an outdoor stage.

"This is the yearly art action we mount in order to uphold the demand to
give the Chinese the freedoms promised in their constitution," he said. It's
also an opportunity for us to cultivate a culture of freedom, to cleanse the
hypocrisy and corruption of the Chinese Communist Party."

In the past, the Freedom Music & Arts Fair took place on a beach, in public
parks, community centres, city squares, football grounds, wherever Hong Kong
artivists could find available space. Hundreds of people attend each event.
This year, it unfolded on the 9th story panoramic rooftop of the Hong Kong
Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, and once again, was a huge success.

The Fair always precedes the June 4th Tiananmen Square massacre
commemorations, and this year, Lenny said, "The 20th anniversary, was even
more vibrant."

This year's Freedom Fair featured a forum by a Taiwanese activist writer and
a band that focused on agricultural issues who presented their perspective
on the mainland. The major coalition group commemorating those killed, the
Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic and Democratic Movements in
China, held a 10,000 person mass rally and march on May 31, and a candle
light vigil June 4 that drew 150,000 people.

Numerous other groups organized diverse actions like artistic happenings in
the cultural centre podium, democracy kite flying actions, and a new
generation of young people, post 1980s, born after the massacre, organized a
show of their creative work.

As Lenny said, "It is comforting to see the old are not departing and the
young are joining in. But I still think that more should be done to foster
real change for mainland China. For example, let's move our actions inland!
People have reservations about this because of security concerns. But I am
planning a tour in the southern regions with a collection of songs about
civil society later this year.

"I've hated shouting outdoors. I'd like to come inside."

* * *

Lenny Guo recently published a fascinating, 200-page bilingual
English/Chinese book about his band called "Singing in the Dead of the
Night," containing interviews, song lyrics, sheet music and a sample CD of
the band's music. His label, Broken Wing Music, also released a beautifully
packaged, retrospective bagset, "Body of Work, 1984-2004."

This is a complete set of seven Blackbird music CDs with bi-lingual liner
notes in English and Chinese. Order the book and CD set as one package, for
400 Hong Kong Dollars, international airmail postage included. Email:
[email protected]. Web sites are freedomfair.artivist.org and blackbird.hk

FE note: At least 60 people remain jailed in China since the June 1989
Tiananmen Square protests, according to human rights campaigners in the Dui
Hua Foundation, an advocacy group for political prisoners.