Not all heroes wear capes — some wear tuxedos and white leather bodysuits. Though she may be a new name to anyone not familiar with Chinese pop music, Denise Ho is an international icon for Chinese people around the world. First for her chart-topping Cantopop singing career, then as a trailblazing LGBTQ icon after coming out in 2012, and now as a pro-democracy activist and leader of the Umbrella Movement. An entertaining and informative new documentary, “Denise Ho: Becoming the Song,” reveals the singer’s motivation and personal sacrifices while also offering a vital survey of Hong Kong history and the fight for independence.
Directed by Sue Williams, “Denise Ho: Becoming the Song” shrewdly draws parallels between Ho’s own political awakening with Hong Kong’s evolving battle over democratic freedoms. The film charts the rise of her career, from a transformative adolescence in Canada that helped her find her creative voice to a meaningful (but at times restrictive) mentorship with original Cantopop diva Anita Mui. Williams weaves into the film recent footage from Hong Kong protests, which resonates deeply as an obvious companion to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations currently erupting around the country and the globe.
“I had all these themes of freedom and revolution in my songs, but I was only role-playing back then because it was only in my head,” Ho says in her first sit-down interview for the film, wearing a chunky black sweater and sporting clean swept short hair. “But then so many years later on, with what happened afterwards, it just became a reality show.”
The footage from Ho’s stadium-filling shows goes a long way towards setting up her massive following and glamorous image. Naturally, the film is scored almost entirely with Ho’s music and lyrics, which are translated to English in an elegant cursive scrawl. Supporting interviews fill in the rest of the story, with the most powerful testimony coming from fellow gay Cantopop singer Anthony Wong. It was Wong’s open embrace of his queerness that inspired Ho to come out, which she timed to coincide with an important vote on LGBTQ rights in Hong Kong.
Even for those just learning about Ho, her rise to fame is a fun and unusual one to observe. Born in Hong Kong, her parents moved the family to Montreal when she was 11. Both Ho and her father credit her education in Montreal with giving her the confidence to pursue a career in music. Her emotional connection to the Francophone city is viscerally apparent in one particular scene, where she is so moved she is unable to sing one of her hit songs, “Montreal.”
She then returned to Hong Kong in 1996 to enter a national singing contest, which she won. This gave her the opportunity to meet her idol, Cantopop diva and the Madonna of China, Anita Mui. She began singing back-up for Mui, and eventually launched her solo career under Mui’s guidance. Clearly Mui was a huge influence on Ho, as evidenced by her glamorous costumes and exciting stage shows. While Ho is extremely grateful and reverential to the late singer (Mui died quite young in 2003), she will admit that she needed to break free from Mui’s shadow. In one interview from the time, Mui is quoted as saying that Ho doesn’t like to wear dresses. “I tell her you’re a girl, you have to wear dresses.”
Ho’s sexuality was a bit of an open secret before she came out; she would often show up to events in bespoke tuxedos and her lyrics spoke of fluid love. Her song “Louis and Lawrence” was written before she herself came out, but tells a plaintive tale of two boys who cannot speak their love out loud. One of the film’s most exciting clips shows Ho singing “Louis and Lawrence” to a wildly cheering crowd after announcing triumphantly, “I am a lesbian!”
Both Ho and Wong have paid a high price not only for their LGBTQ activism, but much more so for their stance on democracy and involvement with the Umbrella Movement. Both have been banned from performing or selling records in mainland China, which they admit made up 80-90 percent of their business. As Ho’s tour manager and her brother, who is also her musical director, explain, her current independent touring set-up is severely diminished from their days of filling stadiums.
But other fans have rallied around her even more since she became a symbol of political activism. As one American fan says before a concert: “Ever since the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, I like her even more. Because she is a true Hong Konger.”
“Denise Ho: Becoming the Song” is currently available on Kino Marquee.