From chart-topping pop star to enemy-of-the-state activist: Hong Kong-born Canadian Denise Ho’s rocky turn

“I try to do what is right. I have this responsibility. I’m just asking for freedom of speech,’ she once said in an interview when asked about her personal record of activism.

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Her musical and acting career in China is in shambles, concerts canceled, blacklisted from businesses. She is a regular target of vitriol in Chinese state media and is now under arrest in Hong Kong, charged with “colluding with foreign forces”.

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The new existence has been an eventful one for Hong Kong-born Canadian citizen Denise Ho, in what amounts to her third or fourth such turnaround. Ho’s ardent pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong over the past eight years has changed almost everything.

Ho’s latest arrest on Wednesday came the day after his 45th birthday.

Her celebrations would be different if she had gone on to be an acclaimed pop star and actress in Hong Kong rather than a dissident enemy of the state.

She once attributed her militant drive to the passion she saw in Canada growing up in Montreal during the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum.

Blaming Canada might be a narrative the Chinese Communist Party would support, if it weren’t for Ho and his push for transparency and democracy in Hong Kong at a sensitive time in its transition to Beijing’s control.

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Ho was 11 when she moved from Hong Kong to Canada with her parents, both teachers, in 1988. They settled in Montreal where she became a Canadian citizen, completed her education and began studying graphic design. at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

Her life changed direction in 1996 when, at the age of 19, she entered a popular Chinese singing contest for new talent and won. Through the contest, she landed a record deal and met iconic canto-pop star Anita Mui, the contest’s first winner, who helped Ho frame a blossoming music career. Canto-pop is a classification of pop songs sung in Cantonese.

During the 2000s, Ho had a string of hit songs, successful concert tours, and won several awards. She has also done television hosting, film, television and theater and charity work.

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She returned to Canada and the United States for concert tours.

Hong Kong actress Denise Ho arrives for a film screening at the Venice Film Festival in September 2011.
Hong Kong actress Denise Ho arrives for a film screening at the Venice Film Festival in September 2011. Photo by TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images/File

His music often dealt with deeper social themes than many contemporaries, including homosexuality, mental health, and support for the socially excluded. In 2012, she won public acclaim for being the first mainstream singer in Hong Kong to publicly come out as gay.

She continued to be nominated for major music awards.

Then the democracy protests in Hong Kong began in 2014.

A occupation of the streets of Hong Kong to protest against government electoral restrictions and a crackdown on dissent seemed to capture Ho’s attention and she became a vocal and active supporter.

She said her activities had resulted in her being banned from public appearances on the mainland and dumped and blacklisted by corporate sponsors who feared risking their market share in China.

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In 2016, after Ho met the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, it made her even more of an enemy of the Chinese state.

A free concert in Hong Kong sponsored by French cosmetics company Lancôme was quickly canceled by Lancôme. The company said it was for security reasons, but many accused it of bowing to pressure from authorities.

“The Chinese tabloids have twisted everything and they are trying to silence people who, like me, stand up for democracy and human rights,” Ho told Montreal’s La Presse newspaper that year.

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Global Times, a Chinese state-controlled daily tabloid, described Ho in its pages as a “Hong Kong pop star”.

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“Ho is known for her unique voice and singing style,” the newspaper wrote in 2013, promoting one of her concerts in Shanghai. This editorial position quickly changed.

The next reference to her in the newspaper, in October 2014, came after she declared her support for pro-democracy protests. It was an article on “celebrity tainting” in which she was accused of “harming Hong Kong society”.

Ho is no longer considered a star in Global Times, but an “anti-continental singer”.

When the London-based BBC included Ho on its list of the 100 most inspirational and influential women in 2016, Global Times nearly choked up, calling the choice “disgusting” and dismissing Ho as “little known.” of Chinese society” for his art, only as a person. which “sows trouble for the Chinese government”.

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Some of her fellow artists have distanced themselves from her, fearing a similar backlash.

A Hong Kong singer has publicly released a statement declaring her love for China and her distance from the protests after she was reprimanded for “liking” one of Ho’s Instagram posts. She said her account had been hacked.

Frank and courageous, Ho did not retract.

In 2019, she addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council, where, amid interruptions and objections from Chinese delegates, she called on the UN to cancel China’s membership.

In her interview with La Presse, Ho hinted that her passion for political activism was influenced by her childhood in Montreal, where she was a teenager during the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum.

Pro-democracy activist and singer Denise Ho leaves a police station after being released from police custody in Hong Kong on December 30, 2021, following her arrest the previous day on charges of 'conspiracy to publish a seditious publication'.
Pro-democracy activist and singer Denise Ho leaves a police station after being released from police custody in Hong Kong on December 30, 2021, following her arrest the previous day on charges of ‘conspiracy to publish a seditious publication’. Photo by BERTHA WANG/AFP via Getty Images/File

“I try to do what is right. I have this responsibility. I just ask for freedom of expression,” she said when asked about her personal record of activism.

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“I spent my entire teenage years in Canada, particularly at a time when a referendum on Quebec independence was being held. For me, that citizens wish to become independent should therefore not be considered a crime.

Ho’s arrest on Wednesday was one of five trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund in Hong Kong, which helped pay the legal fees and medical bills of protesters arrested in 2019 – or, in the words of the Global Times, ” supporting the rioters in violent acts”. .” The fund was dissolved last year.

In addition to Ho, the fund’s other administrators have been arrested, including Cardinal Joseph Zen, a 90-year-old former Hong Kong bishop, senior lawyer Margaret Ng, former lawmaker Cyd Ho and academic Hui Po. -keung.

Ho had previously been arrested and released in December for her role at Stand News, accused of “conspiracy to print or distribute inflammatory publications”, Chinese state media said.

She was also arrested in 2014.

When the barricades and protest tents were torn down by police, Ho was among the protesters taken away.

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