November 22, 2019 / 11:17 AM / 11 days ago

Hong Kong's piano man changes his tune to protest anthem

HONG KONG (Reuters) - When government workers began to clear up a street back in June, after one of Hong Kong’s largest and most violent protests in decades, Kevin Cheung rushed to salvage 36 umbrellas from the debris.

“I could feel the violence that happened to the umbrellas and to the people holding them,” said Cheung, a 32-year-old designer who fashions products out of discarded materials, recalling the aftermath of the protest on Harcourt Road.

“What kind of waste comes out of the city connects really closely to what is happening in it.”

Five years ago, recycling stations set up during the “Occupy” or “Umbrella” protests, which paralysed parts of Hong Kong for 79 days, inspired Cheung to give new life to mangled umbrellas left over from protests.

Umbrellas became the most visible symbol of the “Occupy” pro-democracy protests in 2014, when activists used them to fend off tear gas and pepper spray, and they remain an essential, and evocative, piece of kit for the anti-government movement today.

For Cheung, the ribs of umbrellas became material for thumb pianos – musical instruments played by plucking tuned metal tines attached to a small wooden board – that he first made in 2015.

On Sept. 28, the fifth anniversary of the “Umbrella Movement”, Cheung released a new version of the nine-tone thumb piano that plays “Glory to Hong Kong”, a song that has become the unofficial anthem of the protest movement.

Cheung’s thumb pianos belong to an ever-growing collection of art that draws inspiration from, or contributes to, the movement as Hong Kong people find creative ways to express their concerns and aspirations. 

Sparked by a now-withdrawn extradition bill, the protests have evolved into calls for greater democracy and an inquiry into what many say is excessive use of force by police.

Cheung donated the proceeds from 45 thumb pianos, which sold for about HK$250 a piece, to raise more than $10,000 for two organisations that support protesters with legal help or medical care.

Kevin Cheung, an upcycling product designer, holds a "Glory to Hong Kong" thumb piano that he made using the ribs of umbrellas left over from protests this summer, in Hong Kong, China November 20, 2019. REUTERS/Sarah Wu

The orders came from addresses across the territory, including the headquarters of a bank, which Cheung declined to identify, and a police dormitory.

“We’re asking for the same thing – universal suffrage,” Cheung said, comparing the latest protests to those in 2014. “The spirit is mostly the same, but the mindset of how desperate people are is very different.”

MORE BROKEN

Another marked difference, Cheung notes, is the evolution of protesters’ gear.

“Five years ago, it was just an umbrella. Now it’s helmets, gas masks, even shields,” he said.

Cheung said people used to seek perfection in the crafting of his handmade instruments.

But in the “Glory to Hong Kong” version, “people are looking for imperfections”, for evidence of the tumultuous origin of the material, he said as he touched the peeling skin of a metal rib.

The condition of the umbrellas, which Cheung and volunteers collect after increasingly violent protests, reflects the growing violence.

“As time goes by, the broken umbrellas have become more broken because the violence has escalated,” he said, opening a scorched blue umbrella that reeked of tear gas.

“It becomes harder to find umbrellas intact.”

Slideshow (5 Images)

A secondary school teacher recently asked Cheung to lead a workshop with his students so they can make their own thumb pianos and play the song that unifies crowds at rallies.

“Their spirits are occupied by the movement,” Cheung said. “He’s worried about how they will cope in going back to normal life - if there’s anything we can call normal.”

Reporting By Sarah Wu; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Robert Birsel

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