Out of tune

Top Cantopop singer causes stir with ‘oil’ comments


Some netizens riled by Cheung

Last Thursday Chinese president Xi Jinping left mainland China for the first time in 29 months. In a tightly-scripted visit, he arrived in Hong Kong – despite a recent rise in Covid-19 infections in the city – to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its return to China.

“Hong Kong has withstood one severe challenge after another, and overcome one hazard after another. After the storm, Hong Kong has been reborn from the ashes, showing flourishing vitality,” Xi proclaimed in a brief speech upon his arrival.

The visit was immediately acclaimed across Sina Weibo, where celebrities and influencers lined up to express their good wishes on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule. Most of stars dutifully retweeted a post from People’s Daily celebrating the historical moment. Others, like heartthrob Yi Yangqianxi and Zhang Yixing, left congratulatory messages under the post with the hashtag #blessHongKongblessmotherland.

A barrage of Hong Kong celebrities joined the scramble to showcase their patriotic mood. Hong Kong-bred comedian-director Stephen Chow, for instance, turned out in a rare interview with CCTV to talk about his love for his country (which, the state broadcaster added, was already apparent in the way that Chow has added Chinese cultural elements to films such as Kung Fu Hustle and the Journey to the West franchise).

“I think this is the biggest advantage of Chinese movies,” Chow said in the interview. “There are many wonderful stories to be told due to China’s deep culture and history.”

In other examples of the celebratory mood Hong Kong singers Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse and William Chan all starred at a gala hosted by the city’s free-to-air broadcaster TVB. Action star Jackie Chan made an inevitable appearance too. So did pianist Lang Lang and mainland singer Zhou Shen (both appeared on the big screen, beamed into the event from across the border).

Not all Hong Kong celebrities made it to the gala, however. Singer Jacky Cheung chose to record a video celebrating the anniversary for Chinese state television instead.

“Hong Kong has experienced a lot with its ups and downs in the past 25 years. I grew up with this city. I was born and grew up here. I still believe in this city, still hoping that it will become a better one. Add oil, Hong Kong,” he urged.

Cheung’s message quickly proved to be problematic with netizens, however, and state channel CCTV soon dropped the clip from its social media account.

What was wrong with Cheung’s message? “Add oil,” a phrase which implies encouragement in Chinese slang, was widely used during the pro-democracy protests three years ago in the city. In 2020, Hong Kong’s government also banned a district council’s proposal to use “Hong Kong, Add Oil” on decorations for the New Year festival, claiming that the expression would “stir misunderstanding and affect social harmony”.

That made Cheung’s use of the same phrase perplexing to some mainland netizens, who noted darkly that he had also avoided mention of the “handover” or the “motherland” in his message.

Others saw wider significance in his no-show at the gala, with more nationalistic netizens soon vowing to boycott the singer as a result.

Some netizens came to Cheung’s defence, arguing that the avalanche of criticism was misplaced. “Nowadays people have become sensitive to such an extreme?” a contributor asked.

“Would it be acceptable if he’d added ‘Hong Kong, China’, add oil?” another queried.

Cheung wasn’t alone in receiving brickbats for the way he responded to the anniversary. Mainland Chinese actress Song Yi was also called out for her post celebrating the Hong Kong anniversary. In Song’s case she had simply retweeted the original post from state broadcaster CCTV, without even bothering to delete the word “repost” in the message, which saw many on social media accusing her of being “lazy” and “insincere”.

Cheung, the 61 year-old Hong Kong singer, has largely stayed out of the limelight in recent years. Shaken by his sudden return to public attention, he then put out a statement stressing his love of China but emphasising that he wanted to keep politics separate from his art.

“I have heard of ‘Beijing, add oil’, ‘Wuhan, add oil’ and ‘Shanghai, add oil’ and personally cannot understand why ‘Hong Kong, add oil’, or the yellow and black colours [yellow became a symbol of opposition to the government in the city], have become the yardstick in determining one’s patriotism, or are taboo, just because they have been used by people who made mistakes or were worn by criminals who had ulterior motives,” he declared.

Supporters of Cheung pointed out that the fact he had to defend himself showed that cyber-bullying has also reached new heights. “It seems incredible to me that public figures need to make statements explaining why they are not ‘unpatriotic’. Are netizens trolling online to uphold justice or simply enjoying the pleasure of smearing others in the name of patriotism?” one commentator thundered.

“The fact that an artist does not want to engage in politics does not mean that he or she is not patriotic. In Jacky Cheung’s case, he just thinks that his main responsibility, as a singer, is to do his job well. That principle applies to all walks of life. The kind of values our society should encourage and embrace should not be dictated by these faceless zombies,” another of his supporters explained.

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