Denise Ho: From Cantopop star to Hong Kong activist at the frontlines
As a Hong Kong-based Cantonese pop star, Denise Ho has transitioned from a high-profile celebrity activist to an actual pro-democracy and LGBT rights activist at the frontlines of protests.
Ho is known for being the first mainstream female singer in Hong Kong to come out of the closet when she participated in the fourth annual Hong Kong Pride Parade in 2012.
When she participated in the Umbrella Movement that clamored for democracy in 2014, she was arrested for participating in the rallies and banned from performing in China.
Since then, the mainland Chinese government has been going after Ho for speaking out on the issues that matter to her, especially the current Hong Kong protests.
Denise Ho: From Hong Kong to Canada and back
Born on 10 May 1977 in then-British colony of Hong Kong, Ho first studied there before moving to Montreal, Canada with her parents in 1988 at the age of 11.
Ho said: “I think it was the fear of the return to China [in the lead-up to the 1997 handover]. A lot of people were leaving at that time.”
She received a diploma of College Studies in Arts and Communications at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, a Catholic college preparatory secondary school and private college.
In 1996, she went back to Hong Kong to participate in the New Talent Singing Awards (NTSA) before beginning her studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) in graphic design.
However, she had only just finished a semester before she returned to Hong Kong as she had won the NTSA competition.
Starting her career at the age of 19 years old, she got a chance to meet the Cantopop diva Anita Mui (dubbed as the “Madonna of the East”), who became her mentor.
Denise Ho’s singing and movie career
Ho launched her career with the stage name, HoCC, and an album complete with a recording contract with Capital Artists. She toured as background vocalist with Mui.
Ho said Mui, who was outspoken in support of the 1989 Tiananmen protesters in China, helped kickstart her career: “She took me in as one of her disciples.”
During her journey, she launched several albums and won a number of awards for them. She likewise held live concerts in Hong Kong, Toronto in Canada, and Atlantic City in New Jersey.
She acted in several films and was nominated for best actress at Taiwan’s Golden Horse film festival. She also hosted TVB’s weekly live music show, Jade Solid Gold, in 2003-2004.
Further, she became a voice talent in the Cantonese versions of the animated films Kung Fu Panda and The Simpsons the Movie.
She began to tour mainland China in a theater adaption of Dream of the Red Chamber as the male lead. She spent some time as well singing and touring in Taiwan.
Denise Ho: From woke to activist
As time passed, she started becoming active with several causes, like mental health awareness. She became an Orbis Student Ambassador and started her own charity fund.
While she came out in 2012 and became involved in LGBTQ rights, her second album, Hocc², in 2002 was the start when her songs began touching on the topic of lesbianism.
She admitted that she realized she was gay at the age of around 13 or 14 years old. During the Pride parade, she called herself “tongzhi,” the Chinese slang word for gay.
Her participation in the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong led to her being demonized by Chinese state media, with major sponsors like Lancome cancelling their sponsorship of the singer.
She said her joining the protests serve a purpose: “I believe my celebrity and also the fact that people recognize me– especially the police recognize me– is something that can protect the people.”
After endorsements dried up, she went on to become an independent artist, founding her own label, Goo Music. She performed at concerts in Hong Kong that she funded herself or were crowdfunded.
Denise Ho: LGBT activist at the frontlines
Speaking when she first came out as a lesbian, Ho said: “I think the public has been really positive about what I have done.”
“It is not about whether one supports LGBT rights, but about gaining respect by standing up for yourself and minorities,” she said.
She went on to found the LGBT rights organisation Big Love Alliance with Cantopop singer Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, and lawmakers Cyd Ho Sau-lan and Raymond Chan Chi-chuen.
As a pro-democracy activist, she has gone on to at the Oslo Freedom Forum.
Last July, she attended the United Nations Human Rights Council’s meeting in Geneva and urged them to remove China from the body to protect Hong Kong despite interruptions by the Beijing delegate.
“To me, the most important thing is to keep everyone’s hopes alive. That really is the thing that I am most concerned about… The fight is not a lost cause, for sure,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Check out Ho’s music video for one of her songs, “Tian Shi Lin,” here:
Check out Ho’s coming out during the 2012 Hong Kong Pride parade:
Check out Ho speaking before the UN Human Rights Council here: