Hong Kong Apostasy
In this chapter of The Best China we introduce a sign-language version of ‘Bring Back the Glory to Hong Kong 願榮光歸香港’, the city’s popular protest song cum anthem, and translate an interview with its creator Jason Wong Yiu-pong (黃耀邦, 1993-), a deaf choreographer and sign-language interpreter.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
5 October 2019
First Day of the
Anti-Face Mask Law
- Jason Wong 黃耀邦 — Deaf Hong Kong Dancer, Facebook page
- Funforestjason, web page
- Jennifer Ngo, ‘Deaf dancer Jason Wong Yiu-pong wins place at Broadway school’, South China Morning Post, 30 March 2014
- Hong Kong Deaf Empowerment 聾人力量, Facebook page
- Hong Kong Sign Language (HKSL) 香港手語
- Hong Kong Sign Language Browser 香港手語瀏覽器, Centre for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong
- The Hong Kong Society for the Deaf 香港聾人福利促進會, Facebook page
Making a Voiceless Anthem That All Can Hear
Jason Wong 黃耀邦
On 23 September 2019, a version of ‘Bring Back the Glory of Hong Kong’ in sign language with movements choreographed by Jason Wong was released on YouTube.
The sign-language version of ‘Bring Back the Glory of Hong Kong’ came out on Monday [the 23rd of September]. Making it entailed a difficult but memorable process, one that began at 18.00 in the evening and didn’t end until 2.00am the following morning. Everyone who was involved — from the group of deaf performers being recorded or the technicians working behind the scenes, as well as our interpreters — were incredibly engaged in the process. Allow me to take this opportunity to thank you all!
This music video is unique, and that’s because it’s ours — it’s something created by deaf people using our own language and our culture. It’s the first time that something like this has ever appeared in Hong Kong.
Previously, cultural performances that featured deaf people didn’t actually ever involve the deaf. Say, for instance, when a deaf character appears in a TV drama, they are invariably played by an actor who can hear. When other music videos are produced that employ sign language they are things made by people who can hear. This time, however, in this music video all of the performers are deaf and we interpret the song we are performing with sign language — we use our unique language to communicate and touch those who are watching.
Deaf people will not remain silent; for we can use sign language to sign our song; we do so because we too believe in the struggle for the human rights and freedoms that by all rights belong to us. The quest for human rights and freedoms is not something particular to the recent protest movement in which so many Hong Kong People have taken to the streets, for they are the very things that deaf people have been fighting for as a group all along.
In the past in Hong Kong, both the use and development of sign language has been stymied. As a result, it’s been extremely difficult for deaf people to express themselves adequately. This is a real social problem that is confronting Hong Kong right now. We can only hope that as everyone focusses on all of the major social issues facing our society, they can give some thought to the inequities faced by deaf people. We are not only deaf, for we too are Hong Kong People; we too are members of Hong Kong society.
It’s because we are all in this together as Hong Kong People that everyone contributed so tirelessly to the production of this sign-language version of ‘Bring Back the Glory to Hong Kong’ — be they the performers on camera or those behind the scenes. It’s because anyone with a conscience and sense of decency is refusing to stand idly by and witness the egregious failures of the present government. We cannot ignore pressing social realities merely for the sake of ‘making a living’.
Although this was the first time we had ever worked together, all of us — regardless of whether we are deaf or able to hear — collaborated seamlessly. It was a great experience. What was also both surprising and exciting was the reaction following the release of the video. Comments included things like: ‘it was so touching’; ‘it made me tear up’; ‘moving’. If truth be told, we ourselves were moved; we too quietly shed tears of emotion.
I really don’t know how best to thank all of those who participated in this production. They have made me feel how truly special Hong Kong People are. And what I mean by ‘Hong Kong People’ is, regardless of the colour of your skin or your race, you are all equally Hong Kong People.
The song you actually hear in our music video is sung by both young and old voices. I hope in particular that those young friends who participated in our production will remember it far into the future. May they convey the thoughts and feelings of this moment into their lives ahead. I also hope that all of the adult participants will encourage even more people to continue our quest, undaunted and fearless. May everyone shoulder the responsibility to protect and vouchsafe our home for future generations.
Restore Hong Kong, the Revolution of the Times!
PS: Fun fact — Our video was posted on 23 September which just happens to be International Sign Languages Day. Although this added a whole level of meaning to what we were doing, we hadn’t planned it that way at all. It was just a coincidence!
P.S. A little fun fact, MV播出當日(23/9) 是國際手語日，這個日子為這MV多加了一重意義。但事實上，團隊定下播出日期時，並沒有留意原來當日是國際手語日。所以，在這天公布這個MV，純屬巧合！
— from Funforestjason, trans. G.R. Barmé
For the YouTube video of the Hong Kong Anthem, see here:
I might not be able to hear, but I can see just fine. I can tell the difference between black and white, and I have a conscience.
— Jason Wong
The Sounds of Silence
‘Signing Brother’ Jason Wong Yiu-pong
An Interview by Wong Hei-lai 黃熙麗
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
On the day of the two-million person protest march Queen’s Road was a sea of people dressed in black. In the swell of marchers Jason Wong and his friends bore their placards aloft, their group led by two of their fellows who used sign language to join in the calls for Carrie Lam to resign. They also signed the slogan ‘Keep Going, Hong Kong!’ In their wake their group of men and women of all ages kept pace with the throng of the other marchers.
Amidst the crackling of all the megaphones, the chanting of slogans, the bawling of exhausted children, the shouts of encouragement, as well as of derision, from the sidelines; amidst all of the rambunctious clamour, Jason Wong’s world remained as silent as ever.
But then, a person next to him saw people gesturing for them to make way for an ambulance that was trying to get through the crowd.
‘At that moment,’ Wong says, ‘I was so happy!’
In sign language he tells me:
‘It was because we deaf people were truly participating.’
Someone with normal hearing saw their group and told them that they wanted to learn how to sign. They joined in their march.
‘When they chanted a slogan, we would join in by signing. It was like a Voiceless Protest.’
It was a Call to Arms: a call made both with voices raised and through the power of silence. Together they participate as one; their protest is clarion and deafening.
Striving for Equality in Hong Kong
Jason Wong’s hearing was badly damaged as a three year old when he suffered from a high fever; at the age of six he went completely deaf. Ever since then he has lived in silence; but he has never let his condition deter him. Even though he couldn’t hear music he’s always loved to dance and he’s particularly enamoured of the strong beat of hip hop music. As a result, he has found a way to express himself through movement.
When our photographer requested that we make a series of portraits of him at the Clock Tower at Tsim Sha Tsui, there was music playing nearby as part of some event. Just as the photographer was setting up, Jason, who was standing patiently to one side, started following the beat of the music by slapping his thighs. It seemed as though he was already dancing to the beat in his mind. I asked our sign-language interpreter if he really couldn’t hear anything. They replied with a smile:
‘Nothing, but whenever he has a moment to himself, Jason just starts to move.’
Just think of the years of devoted practice necessary to become a dancer if you can’t hear the music to which you’re practicing? Although the sound of the beat may be inaudible, by turning up the volume he could feel the beat as it coursed through the dance floor, and he would keep time in his heart. Jason Wong has been practicing for many years and, in 2014, he was awarded a scholarship enabling him to study at the Broadway Dance Center in New York. After returning to Hong Kong, he set up a dance school for deaf people with a group of friends.
聽不到音樂的舞者，沒說出來的是多年的苦練。聽不到旋律節拍，就把音樂聲調高，感受地板的聲波震動，在內心數拍子。他練舞多年，2014年獲奬學金到美國Broadway Dance Center學跳舞，回來後與友人創立聾人舞蹈學校。
Jason Wong remembers all too well the times people told him they couldn’t dance, but for him dancing has helped him to overcome obstacles, develop his confidence and find his own way to express himself through physical movement.
‘Dancing has helped me realise that although communicating with other people will always be a challenge for me, I have another way to relate my story.’
Yet, recently, he decided to put his work at the dance academy on hold and devote himself full time to the Anti Extradition Bill Protest Movement. He contributes to the protests by helping other deaf people learn what is going on so that they can participate for themselves. He has become one of the people known as ‘Signing Older Brothers’ — the name for the volunteer deaf interpreters frequently seen at unofficial citizens press conferences held by the protesters, as well as during press briefings organised at the class boycotts mounted by high-school students and at gatherings of public servants. He also takes a lead in classes organised by the group Hong Kong Deaf Empowerment group that has been helping the hearing impaired to understand the movement.
Whether it be as an interpreter using sign language, through dance or by participating in street protests, Jason Wong is using his body as an instrument of expression. He may be silent, but he is determined to make himself heard.
‘The deaf have been silent for far too long. We want to let society known what we think and feel so that people can better appreciate our needs. Our hope is that we can play a greater role and join in with the rest of the community.’
He says that the deaf have been striving to achieve the same things that other Hong Kong people are struggling for, that is to say: basic human rights and freedoms.
‘Deaf people still have to struggle for many basic freedoms [that others already enjoy]. The freedoms that people are protesting in support of this time around are the self same things that we want.’
During the Umbrella Movement of late 2014, Jason Wong was in the United States, but he kept up with the unfolding events on the news.
‘At the time I was already worried that there was no way of telling how Hong Kong might change in the future, so I really started paying attention to social issues. As Hong Kong people we all have a responsibility to be engaged.’
He was already worried about the undermining of the city’s basic rights and freedoms.
‘My mother tongue is Hong Kong Sign Language. Would they want to eliminate it and replace it with Mainland Sign Language? Then there’s the fact that I’m a dancer. If my performances featured political content would I be forbidden from dancing? Would all the freedoms related to politics be taken away?’
Jason’s determination to find a way of expressing himself, of ‘speaking out’, is part of a continuing effort to break out of the cage that confines him.
‘From my earliest years I have experienced various forms of oppression; so, for me, the quest for freedom is simply second nature.’
Deaf people face numerous restrictions, be it in the educational realm or in their everyday lives. Jason Wong says that ‘it’s though we have been forgotten.’ From his earliest days at school he couldn’t ‘read’ his teachers lips and couldn’t keep up with his studies like his classmates and this had an impact on his advancement at school.
In daily life there were also many obstacles, including really small things like the lack of warning lights on the subway platform, or the fact that you could only apply for a passport over the phone. He always had to rely on friends helping out. More crucially important was being treated at hospital when the need arose. Doctors wear surgical masks and so he couldn’t work out what they were saying to him.
‘It takes ages to book a person who can come and sign for you. But if you’re seriously ill you need attention on the spot.’
‘There are also so many kinds of information that are not set down in writing, so you find that you really are missing out on many things pertinent to understanding the world around you. There’s so many things you want to do, but you can’t find out how to go about it.’
He also had difficulty at his first dance class since he couldn’t see the teacher’s mouth, so he couldn’t interpret their instructions. He simply couldn’t keep up. When he went to study in the US he had to go into battle with his school for three months before they finally assigned a sign-language interpreter to him.
‘Studying is already hard enough, then there’s all the difficulties in getting and absorbing information about things, added to that are the hindrances to getting your voice heard.’
It’s the same in the case of the 2019 Protest Movement.
Obstacles to Participation
During one particular demonstration he was aware that something was amiss, but since he couldn’t hear anything, and as there was no sign-language interpreter in the vicinity, he had to use his phone to ask what was happening:
‘I’m sorry’, he texted, ‘but I can’t hear. Can you tell me what’s going on?’
At the time of the Umbrella Movement his hearing-impaired friends couldn’t hear the warnings being issued by the police, nor could they tell when rounds of tear gas were fired. It’s only because the people around them were running for cover that they managed to work out what was happening and catch up so as to avoid ‘getting a bellyful’ of gas. After that kind of stressful experience they didn’t dare go on any more protests.
During the present movement, the citizens’ press briefings have people signing and Jason Wong has been one of them. But at the government press conferences and in many news reports there are no sign translators, so deaf people can’t work out what is going on. They have to wait until there are written reports of the events or properly signed translations. But there’s always quite a time lag, be it of some hours or even a day or two. The deaf can’t find out what’s happening in a timely manner, let alone can they respond meaningfully.
In June, Hong Kong Deaf Empowerment carried out a survey related to the movement. They asked 133 deaf or hearing-impaired people, along with 132 people with unimpaired hearing, ten questions related to the Extradition Bill protests, including such things as: ‘Are you aware that people have been arrested during the protests?’. The deaf or hearing impaired who replied that they didn’t know were twice to thirteen times more numerous than those with normal hearing.
‘Previously many people have observed that the deaf can’t have their say, but when they want to do so they find they are trapped like birds in a cage,’ Wong tells us.
Interviewing someone using sign language means that every time a question is asked, Jason has to focus on exactly what is being conveyed, using his eyes to ‘hear’ what is being said. He then pauses to consider his response and replies with a rapid series of hand gestures. As Jason and the interpreter are engaged in their exchange, I felt that I was an outsider and I found myself feeling ill-at-ease as I was unable to speak their language. That’s what it must be like for deaf people living in Hong Kong where Chinese is spoken everywhere but their language isn’t. The chasm that exists between sign language and spoken Chinese means that the deaf truly feel like they are trapped in a cage.
Sign language is the mother tongue of the deaf. For them learning Chinese is akin to learning a second language; that’s like a native speaker of Chinese learning a foreign language like English. Studying language involves ‘listening, speaking, reading and writing’. When he first started at school Jason Wong could barely lip read. Now he can understand about seventy percent of the Chinese that he reads, among his fellows that is regarded as being a pretty good level of attainment.
‘More often than not the deaf are ignored by society at large. We really have to fight for the most basic freedoms, including such things as the right to know things, or the right to receive a full education.
‘Being unable to go to a school that employs your mother tongue is itself a human rights issue; it has an impact on our studies, as well as on our ability to express ourselves. Isn’t silence imposed on us?’
Wong’s mother is also deaf and she fell behind in her early studies.
‘Mum has only very limited Chinese and she really can’t read the paper well enough to find out what’s going on. She often has to ask me. Because we are Hong Kong people, of course we are very interested in what’s happening and we care.’
Wong himself puts a lot of effort into following the news and he scours social media sites like Facebook and Telegram for information about what’s been happening during the Protest Movement. He has also been doing volunteer work at the classes organised by Hong Kong Deaf Empowerment. For instance, they have invited members of LegCo to come and explain the Extradition Bill to them, and lawyers have been asked to give them advice about what they should do when they are arrested.
‘If you’re arrested and can’t communicate because of your deafness. When they see us using sign language they think we’re crazy, so, in the past anyway, you’d be bundled off to Castle Hill Hospital as though you were simply mentally ill. Our classes help people understand how they can get the police to provide them with sign language interpreters so they can better protect themselves.’
Seeing Deaf People in the Protests
Jason Wong is one of the volunteer ‘Signing Brothers’ who appears at the numerous citizens’ press conferences that are organised by LIHKG. The people giving the briefings all wear face masks and cover their eyes with goggles so, even if the deaf sign-language interpreters could read their lips, there is no way of knowing what they are saying.
‘I just want to do my bit by making a contribution. Being an interpreter is one way that I can do that.’
On such occasions, simultaneous signing translation is done by a person seated in the front of the gathering who hears what is being said and then conveys it back to the signer on stage. They then repeat it for the audience and the camera.
Wong says that ideally he needs a day or two to prepare before a job so he can familiarise himself with new and difficult expressions. In that way he can work out with his fellow interpreter — who can hear — just how to ‘say’ them. Since the grammar used in sign language is different from Cantonese:
‘If we were to translate every word, then some people, especially those who are a bit older, would have difficulty understanding what we were signing. There’s so many new nouns, so we really have to get together and work out how to convey them to other deaf people. Take, for instance, the expression ‘Anti Extradition to China’ — you can’t just translate the words ‘anti’, ‘send’ and ‘China’. You need to interpret it as meaning “detaining a person in one place to take them somewhere else and that we oppose that happening”.’
He decided to leave the dance academy he’d helped set up so he could devote himself to supporting the struggle.
‘Of course I did it reluctantly, but I really wanted to spend more time involved in the resistance; to be involved in issues related to the rights of the deaf along with the broader freedoms of Hong Kong people as a whole.’
Early on he attended the rallies of striking students at Chinese University. Seated among the protesters a student recognised him as one of the ‘Signing Brothers’ and approached him to ask how he could say ‘Restore Hong Kong, Revolution of the Times’ in sign language.
‘Various media outlets started featuring deaf people using sign language. It’s something that hadn’t happened before. This movement has caused people to pay attention to the deaf, to sign language and to a realisation that deaf people exist. It’s enabling more people to hear different voices.’
Everyone Marching Together
‘I might not be able to hear, but I can see just fine. I can tell the difference between black and white, and I have a conscience.’
On 16 June, Jason Wong and a group of around eighty deaf people of different ages, along with eight non-hearing impaired signing translators, participated in that day’s demonstration. Arms held high they chanted their protest slogans in sign language.
‘We had explained to everyone what the “Extradition Bill” was all about and even older deaf people wanted to join our march.’
There were also others who joined in, people they didn’t know and who were not hearing impaired. So it ended up that the group was led by those people who chanted out loud:
‘Carrie Lam Resign!’
They were followed by a collective signed chant that expressed the same demand.
‘Previously, during the Umbrella Movement, deaf people only realised that they should disperse when tear gas was fired because they could see what the other protesters were doing. We couldn’t hear the canisters being launched; we had to rely on what we could see. But we do have particularly acute sight; we notice everything.’
This time around, lots of Jason’s deaf friends are participating in the demonstrations, but since they can’t hear they are very mindful of their surroundings — they have an eye on everything [一眼關七, literally, ‘one eye on all seven points’, that is, ‘before, after, left, right, top, centre and bottom’ 前後左右上中下 — trans]. Even when they are physically present at a demonstration they rely on WhatsApp to ask friends what is happening around them. Jason expresses the hope that when other demonstrators encounter a deaf person they will keep an eye out for them.
‘If you know sign language, please take the initiative to communicate with us. Because we can’t hear we don’t know if or where there is danger.’
At a time like the present, when there are demonstrations held despite official refusals to issue permits to protesters, deaf people, like everyone else, get enveloped in clouds of tear gas and can easily end up being arrested. If protesters in the Pacifist Camp have their concerns, such concerns are even greater among the deaf. Why, then, given the circumstances, are they still so determined to ‘speak out’ [發聲]? Up until this point in the interview Jason had been responding in sign language, now he suddenly grabs a pen and writes the words:
‘Original Intention’. [初衷, a term also favoured by the Chinese Communists under Xi Jinping.]
‘Our purpose; you have to keep your original aim in mind; you must have the courage to use your actions to express yourself. I regard human rights as fundamental; I too yearn for our freedoms. But we live in a society in which there are many forms of hegemony and of repression. We are a minority that by its very nature has difficulty making itself heard. But I’m a Hong Kong Person and I sincerely want things in Hong Kong to get better; I want our society to progress. That’s why I want to continue protesting. That is my heartfelt Original Intention.’
During our conversation, Jason Wong repeatedly says: ‘I am a Hong Kong Person.’
‘I express myself using Hong Kong sign language. Hong Kong is an international city. Although it’s small, it’s a beautiful place. It’s a city that I want to contribute to protecting.
‘People ask me why I don’t immigrate to America, a place where I could do much better for myself. It’s true that the support system for the deaf in Hong Kong is very poor; but I still want to do what I can to help improve things in this society, to contribute in particular to disadvantaged groups, including the disabled and sexual minorities.
‘This time more people are paying attention to the deaf than they did during the Umbrella Movement. We all want to take part; we will march together.’
Being in it together from start to finish.
Keep It Up, Hong Kong!
- 黃熙麗, ‘手語哥哥無聲中發聲——黃耀邦’, 《蘋果日報》, 2019年9月17日