Denise Ho
Denise Ho

Meet Cantopop singer, pro-democracy and LGBTQ rights activist and key figure in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement Denise Ho

Canto-pop princess Denise Ho never came out to her parents – but in 2012 she made a snap decision to come out to the world. Today she’s a frontline LGBTIQ activist in Hong Kong, leading the charge for democracy and human rights. We caught up with Denise ahead of her Sydney Antidote Festival appearance.

When we connect on Skype for our interview, Denise Ho looks picture perfect. Sporting a crisp white collared shirt and a cropped blonde hairdo, the canto-pop celebrity is warm, bubbly, but short on time.

She only has fifteen minutes to spare, because another media team will be coming to set up shortly.

She has a strong accent, but is incredibly articulate and confident – probably because she lived in Montreal, Canada with her family during her teenage years.

“It was a very important period for me. I got a lot of my values and ways of thinking from that time,” she remembers.

It was in Montreal, around age 17, Ho remembers, that she knew she liked girls. And while she never had that talk with her parents, she says she gave them “a very long period of time to get used to the idea.”

The same female friend had been visiting for years, but they never asked her any questions. And with her music career taking off, “of course I had all these songs about two girls and two boys…I guess they just gradually knew,” Ho smiles.

“I think the most important thing is that I showed them I knew what I was doing in my career, and I could take care of myself. But of course it’s very controversial in Hong Kong. For some people it’s still very difficult.”

Ho says she often tells fans who are having a difficult time with their parents to do the same – give them time, and show them what you’re worth in every other part of life.

But it’s a battle the Chinese LGBTIQ community at large is still fighting.

With no anti-discrimination laws in place, many people still face harassment and bullying daily.

It’s this wider issue that Ho dedicates most of her activism to.

Back in 2012, a recommendation for an anti-discrimination bill was made to the government, but was immediately shut down without any public consultation. Since the Chinese public had no voting power, the motion couldn’t be argued. The event changed everything for Ho.

“I realised we had a legislative system that was very rigged and favourable to the government, so I was very angry. I made a quick decision to come out a few days after I saw the news…and that was the beginning of this whole journey.”

It was a groundbreaking moment: Ho became the first female celebrity to come out publicly in China.

Part of her inspiration was Anthony Wong – a fellow Chinese singer who had come out just six months earlier, and the first male celebrity to do so. At this point, the pair joined forces to create their non-profit organisation, Big Love Alliance.

Several years on, the group has hundreds of members, a board that includes Chinese legislators, and also works with the Singapore based group Pink Dot to widen their reach. And although Big Love Alliance began in response to a political injustice, Ho says currently the focus is on community outreach and education. With the communist “one country, two systems” arrangement in place, there’s little hope of influencing politics at this stage, she explains.

“We don’t have universal suffrage (full voting rights) in Hong Kong…and without democracy we can’t really do much about LGBTQ rights.”

In fact, being open about her sexuality and political views has had the opposite effect – it’s backfired, and cost her dearly.

Since 2012, Ho has been banned from performing in mainland China, where previously she had performed to thousands of fans in sold-out concerts. She’s also reportedly been dropped from promotional sponsors as a result of her public views. Her colleague Anthony Wong has befallen a similar fate, having his music censored since the 2012 announcement.

While in Australia we take it for granted that we can defend our values, the reality in China is very different. Disagreeing with the government has consequences, and the fearmongering is real.

“China has been tightening the grip on Hong Kong and also using its economic power to shut a lot of people up. They’re also violating human rights,” Ho says.

And while Chinese politics may not seem like an issue we need to worry about here, she believes it’s creating problems for the whole world. “You see whole countries and different people silencing themselves because they don’t want to be on the wrong side of China,” she tells LOTL.

“We see the way they have been ignoring the promises they made with the British government (to progress towards democracy) and the way they have been treating the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and so on. Then they are shutting people up with their financial power…and of course they are in alliance with other countries.

“Should we conform with these countries? I think that if you believe in human rights and humanity, we have to stand up. And it’s up to the people to speak up – the governments have their hands tied because of the benefits they might get from these big countries.”

But amid it all, there’s a silver lining, Ho says. “I believe a lot of people have been awakened. When you see the government being more and more suppressive, and ignoring all these things that are happening, people get very angry. That is why a whole young generation, and people like us in older generations have stood up (in recent protests)…it hasn’t always been like that.

“I guess the way the government has been treating people has caused a lot of awakening.”