From chart-topping pop star to activist enemy of the state: 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 expression, ‘she once said in an interview when asked about the personal toll of her activism

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Her musical and acting career in China is in ruins, concerts canceled, blacklisted from corporate endorsements. She’s a regular target for vitriol in Chinese state media and now she is under arrest in Hong Kong, accused of “collusion with foreign forces.”

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It’s been a rocky new existence for Hong Kong-born Canadian citizen Denise Ho, in what amounts to her third or fourth such turnabout. Ho’s ardent pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong over the past eight years has changed just about everything.

Ho’s latest arrest, Wednesday, came the day after her 45th birthday.

Her celebrations would be different had she continued her path as an acclaimed and pop star and actress in Hong Kong rather than as a dissident enemy of the state.

She once attributed her activist drive to the passion she saw in Canada while coming of age in Montreal during the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum.

Blame Canada might be a narrative the Chinese Communist Party would back, if it wasn’t about Ho and her 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 years old 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 schooling and started studies in graphic design at Université du Québec à Montréal.

Her life changed directions in 1996 when, at the age of 19, she entered a popular Chinese singing competition for new talent and won. Through the competition she was awarded a recording contract and met iconic Canto-pop star Anita Mui, the competition’s first winner, who helped mentor Ho to a blossoming musical career. Canto-pop is a classification for pop songs sung in Cantonese.

Through the 2000s, Ho had a series of chart-topping hit songs, successful concert tours and won several awards. She also did television hosting, film, TV and theater acting, and charitable work.

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

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

Her music is often carried deeper socially aware of themes than many contemporaries, including homosexuality, mental health and support for societal outcasts. In 2012 she garnered public acclaim for being the first mainstream female Hong Kong singer to publicly declare she was gay.

She continued to be nominated for major music awards.

Then the Hong Kong democracy protests began in 2014.

An occupation of Hong Kong streets to protest the reg election restrictions and clampdown on dissent seemed to capture Ho’s attention and she became a vocal and active supporter.

She said her activities caused her to be banned from public appearances on the mainland and abandoned and blacklisted by corporate sponsors who feared risking their market share in China.

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

A free Hong Kong concert sponsored by France’s cosmetic company Lancôme was soon canceled by Lancôme. The company said it was for security reasons, but many accused it of caving to pressure from authorities.

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

Global Times, a Chinese state-controlled daily tabloid, used to describe Ho in their pages as a “Hong Kong pop star.”

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

The next reference to her in the paper, in October 2014, came after she declared support for the democracy protests. It was an article about “tainted celebrities” in which she was accused of “harming Hong Kong’s society.”

Ho is no longer referred to as a star in the Global Times, but as an “anti-mainland singer.”

When London-based BBC included Ho on its list of 100 most inspirational and influential women in 2016, Global Times almost choked, calling the choice “disgusting” and dismissing Ho as being “little known to Chinese society” for her art, only as someone who “makes trouble for the Chinese government.”

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Some of her fellow artists shied away from her, fearing a similar backlash.

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

Outspoken and courageous, Ho did not recant.

In 2019, she addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council, where, in between interruptions and objections by China’s delegates, she called on the UN to rescind China’s membership.

In her interview with La Presse, Ho suggested her passion for political activism was influenced by growing up 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 custody in Hong Kong on December 30, 2021, following her arrest the previous day for “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’m just asking for freedom of expression, “she is quoted as saying when asked about the personal toll of her activism.

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“I spent all my adolescence in Canada, especially at a time when a referendum on the independence of Quebec was held. For me, that citizens wish to become independent should therefore not be considered a crime. ”

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

Along with Ho, other fund trustees were arrested, including Cardinal Joseph Zen, a 90-year-old former bishop of Hong Kong, senior barrister Margaret Ng, former lawmaker Cyd Ho and academic Hui Po-keung.

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

She was also arrested in 2014.

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

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