Hong Kong celebrities largely mum on protests gripping city

Joshua Wong, center, and other protesters turn their backs and raise crossed hands in silence at a flag-raising ceremony at Golden Bauhinia Square in Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong, center, and other protesters turn their backs and raise crossed hands in silence at a flag-raising ceremony at Golden Bauhinia Square in Hong Kong.
(Anthony Kwan / Getty Images)

Hong Kong celebrities are known for their omnipresence and outspokenness. Gossip-mad locals obsess over every word and every move of movie stars and soap-opera starlets whom they worship as, and actually call, “idols.”

However, as this Chinese city, aka Hollywood East, has emerged as democracy’s latest battleground, Hong Kong’s galaxy of stars and starlets has been almost entirely out of sight during the sit-ins.

Celebrities elsewhere around the globe have tweeted and blogged about the protests. Mia Farrow tweeted the headshot of Joshua Wong, the high school activist who has been at the forefront of the protests, asking, “Can this 17-yr-old leader of Hong Kong revolution defeat Beijing?”

Meanwhile, George Takei, of “Star Trek” fame, blogged his support for the city’s democracy movement, dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution,” on his website, and posted a picture showing a phalanx of Hong Kong police officers in Darth Vader-esque riot helmets.


But aside from Andy Lau and Chow Yun-fat, Hong Kong’s stars have been nearly mum on the movement.

“Celebrities who want to expand their careers overseas must be wondering if taking a stand on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong will be embarrassing for their employers — the cash-rich mainland and establishment Hollywood studios whose increased cooperation is dependent upon production licenses and distribution rights controlled by Beijing, " said Jonathan Landreth, managing editor of ChinaFile, who previously wrote about the Chinese film industry from Beijing.

The protests have had a cinematic quality. They’ve featured pyrotechnics of a sort (tear gas grenades), interesting props (the ubiquitous umbrella and metal barricades stacked like Lego bricks) and action (white-collar workers and students facing off against riot police).

There are villains too, though who’s in that role depends on your worldview -- some see the story as one of evil Commies with a plot to enslave the world’s freest capitalists; others say it’s a tale of Western spies with a plot to overthrow the world’s most populous nation on the sheer wits and guts of the 17-year-old Wong.

The protest movement in Hong Kong is agitating against new rules imposed by Beijing authorities that would limit voters’ choices in the 2017 election for chief executive, the territory’s top official. The movement, which was presaged by a weeklong university student strike, exploded into massive sit-in demonstrations after police tried in vain to disperse unarmed protesters with tear gas.

One local star, Denise Ho, appeared at a rally near the besieged government office compound, and then had her account on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, shut down.

Ho is hardly the first celebrity to face such retaliation after going against the Party line.

Brad Pitt became persona non grata with Chinese authorities after his 1997 starring role in “Seven Years in Tibet.” The film was faulted by Chinese officials for depicting Tibetans, much like today’s Hong Kong protesters, in less-than-euphoric embrace of the motherland.


In 2013, Pitt’s Weibo account was, like Ho’s, mysteriously “disappeared” shortly after he opened it. (Pitt finally returned to the mainland this year, visiting Shanghai with wife Angelina Jolie.)

One star to speak out, sort of, is Andy Lau, whose claim to fame has been cop roles. Lau posted on Facebook on Wednesday calling for a timeout on violence, both physical and verbal, but stopped short of supporting the movement or criticizing the government.

Others who spoke out have similarly kept their comments politically neutral and touchy-feely.

One exception is Chow Yun-fat, who played a South China Sea pirate in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” In an interview with the anti-Communist newspaper Apple Daily, Chow challenged the government to make concessions and accommodate the protesters.


One famous native son who might have been expected to weigh in – on Beijing’s side – is Jackie Chan.

In the past, Chan has courted controversy with remarks including “I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not,” and “I’m beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled,” and saying Hong Kong has become a city of protests where people “scold China, scold the leaders, scold anything, protest against anything.”

But Chan might have decided that keeping a low profile is best, given that his family has been in a bit of hot water itself with Chinese authorities. Chan’s son, Jaycee, was arrested in August by Beijing police for drug possession.

Law is a special correspondent.


Staff writer Christy Khoshaba in Los Angeles and Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.