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Hong Kong’s Piano Man Changes Tune to Protest Song

Kevin Cheung, an upcycling product designer, holds a "Glory to Hong Kong" thumb piano that he made using the ribs of umbrellas left over from protests this summer, in Hong Kong, China November 20, 2019. Picture taken November 20, 2019. REUTERS/Sarah Wu
Hong Kong’s Piano Man Changes Tune to Protest Song
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When workers in Hong Kong began to clear a street after a violent protest last June, Kevin Cheung hurried there to collect umbrellas left in the destruction.

The 32-year-old makes art from used materials.

“I could feel the violence that happened to the umbrellas and to the people holding them,” Cheung said of the protest on Harcourt Road.

Five years ago, recycling stations set up during the “Occupy” protests gave Cheung the idea to give new life to the broken umbrellas of activists.

Umbrellas became the best-known symbol of the “Occupy” pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014. Activists used them to avoid tear gas and similar weapons. Protesters use them in the current anti-government protests, as well.

The metal parts of umbrellas became material for Cheung’s thumb pianos. The musical instruments are played by touching metal pieces connected to a small wooden board. Cheung made his first thumb piano in 2015.

On September 28 -- the fifth anniversary of the Occupy movement -- Cheung released a new version of his thumb piano. It plays Glory to Hong Kong, which has become the unofficial song of the protest movement.

Cheung’s thumb pianos belong to an ever-growing collection of art connected to the movement. He and others in Hong Kong continue to find new ways to express their concerns -- and their hopes.

The latest protests started after the consideration of a bill that would have permitted criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. The bill was later withdrawn. But the protests continue. Demonstrators are calling for greater democracy as well as an investigation into what many describe as extreme use of force by police.

“We’re asking for the same thing – universal suffrage,” Cheung said, comparing the latest protests to those in 2014. “The spirit is mostly the same, but the mindset of how desperate people are is very different.”

Cheung donated the $10,000 he made from sales of thumb pianos to two organizations that support protesters. The groups help the activists with legal advice or medical care.

Cheung said people used to seek perfection in his handmade instruments.

But in the Glory to Hong Kong version of his thumb piano, he said, “people are looking for imperfections.” The condition of the umbrellas, which Cheung and volunteers collect after increasingly violent protests, show the growing violence.

“As time goes by, the broken umbrellas have become more broken because the violence has escalated,” he said.

A secondary school teacher recently asked Cheung to lead a workshop with his students. The teacher wanted his students to make their own thumb pianos and play the song that unites crowds at demonstrations.

“Their spirits are occupied by the movement,” Cheung said of the students He said the teacher is "worried about how they will cope in going back to normal life - if there’s anything we can call normal.”

I’m Ashley Thompson.

The Reuters news agency reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

umbrella - n. a device that is used for protection from the rain and sun

recycle - v. to make something new from (something that has been used before)

symbol - n. an action, object, event, etc., that expresses or represents a particular idea or quality

suffrage - n. the right to vote in an election

spirit - n. a desire or determination to do something

desperate - adj. very sad and upset because of having little or no hope : feeling or showing despair

escalate - v. to become worse or to make (something) worse or more severe

cope - v. to deal with problems and difficult situations and try to come up with solutions