How My Song Became an Unlikely Protest Anthem—in Hong Kong

I'd given up on a music career when a song I posted online took on a strange new life. Suddenly I had a #1 hit, and an entire new life on the other side of the world.

How My Song Became an Unlikely Protest Anthem—in Hong Kong

In 2007, when I was 24, I wrote a song called “This Is My Dream.” It was a defiant song about fighting to keep a dream alive against the odds. I’d spent almost 10 years trying to make it in the music industry — working any odd job I could in order to afford time in a recording studio, sending out demo after demo — but I’d gotten nowhere.

I uploaded the song to ReverbNation, a site where unsigned musicians could share their work, and thereafter forgot about it. The only people who really listened to the song were a few family members and friends.

Meanwhile, I was working at the local hospital in Worthing, a retirement town on the south coast of England, preparing patient notes for clinics. One day, when I’d returned to the clerk’s room after collecting notes from all over the hospital, there was a knock at the door. A lady in her early 50s entered, dressed in a white lab coat. I’d seen her once or twice before and knew that she worked in the neighboring microbiology lab.

“Hi, I just wondered if you wear insoles in your shoes to help you walk?” she said. “My son’s got cerebral palsy, you see, and I noticed that you lift your knees high when you walk. I wondered what was wrong.”

My arrival in Hong Kong after deciding to relocate and pursue my music career, 2014. (Photos courtesy the author)

I had no idea what she was talking about.

“Oh … well, nothing,” I answered, confused. “Not as far as I’m aware. Actually, you’re the first person who’s said anything about my walking.”

She went on to tell me how her son was managing OK and had recently found himself a girlfriend. As if to imply that things might work out all right for me in the end as well. Here’s hoping!

I asked my only other colleague in the room if she had noticed anything different about the way I walked, pacing up and down the small office a few times hoping that she’d reassure me that everything was normal.

“Actually, you do lift your knees up quite high and sort of place your feet down,” she said. “Kinda like you’re marching,”

I remembered that when I was in middle school, I would walk down a road with a slight hill to get to school, and I was often puzzled by how much noise my feet made slapping against the pavement. I used to amuse myself thinking that my feet were like an alarm clock waking people up who lived on the street. And I could never tap my foot — I could barely lift the front part of it off the floor, which always struck me as odd, especially given that I was a musician. And now at work, in the weeks after the woman’s questions, I noticed that my feet felt less stable than they used to, almost as if they had gone to sleep on me. I’d tripped a few times, which at first I just put down to my own clumsiness. But then I started to notice that my calf muscles were shrinking.

I hoped that I was imagining things, but just to be safe I went to see a doctor, who then referred me to a geneticist. After a series of blood tests, they called me in and told me that I had a condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth, an inherited neuromuscular condition, which causes progressive muscle wastage in the feet, ankles, lower legs, and sometimes in the hands as well. In other words, it was only going to get worse. It doesn’t affect life expectancy, but severity varies from patient to patient, and some require a wheelchair. And there is no cure for it. The only treatment they offer is physiotherapy to help keep existing muscles strong.

Adjusting to the onset of the disability wasn’t easy. I developed foot drop and struggled to find shoes that were comfortable and supportive to walk in. Out in public, people would often stare at my different gait. I was performing at a local talent night at a pub in my hometown one night when a group of guys in the audience started mimicking the way I walked. One of them hurled out, “You walk like an ostrich!” This highly ignorant yet piercing remark destroyed what little confidence I had about performing onstage. I couldn’t see the point of continuing anymore if people were going to make fun of me.

After that, I decided to finally give up my music dreams. I loved music and songwriting, but I just couldn’t take any more disappointments. The daily onslaught of rejections had worn me down over the years, and now I had enough on my plate adjusting to life with a disability. I didn’t have the same resilience as before, so I reluctantly gave up and started to pursue a career in journalism instead. I managed to get a job working as a writer for a magazine in London.

But just as I gave up on music fame, it came knocking all by itself. One lunchtime at work, I checked my personal account and found an email from Universal Music Publishing in Hong Kong. A new TV network called Hong Kong Television (HKTV) was being launched, and they had chosen “This Is My Dream” from the millions on the website for unsigned musicians. They wanted to use it as a theme song for one of their TV shows. I couldn’t quite believe it. I speedily replied and said that, yes, I was interested, definitely. A couple of weeks later, I signed my first-ever record deal.

But there was a glitch. A few months later, the TV network was refused a broadcast license by the Hong Kong government, with no explanation. Following the 1997 handover from British rule back to China, Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy for 50 years under a unique “one country, two systems” arrangement. Hong Kong residents would enjoy special civil liberties such as freedom of speech, of the press and of publication, as well as freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration, while still remaining technically inside China. However, in the decade and a half since the handover, faith in the durability of Hong Kong’s special arrangement had eroded and fear of Chinese encroachment had grown.

There were suspicions that the central government in Beijing had intervened to block the TV network because it wasn’t under their control. Other suspicions were that rival TV networks with political connections had asked officials not to grant the license to this popular new network, fearing the competition and potential loss of advertising revenue. Either way, the public was not happy.

The crowd gathered outside the Hong Kong government headquarters on October 25, 2013.

Tens of thousands of people gathered outside of the government headquarters, and HKTV erected a stage — they made my song the anthem of these anti-government protests. On the other side of the world in London, I watched on YouTube as my song was being played to masses of people attending these protest rallies. I saw video after video of thousands of people all waving their mobile phone lights in the air as they played my song on a loudspeaker. It moved me to tears to see a song I’d written connect with thousands of people in such a heartfelt way. I’d not long ago given up on music, and now this.

After three days of protests, I was contacted by HKTV, who asked if I’d like to go to Hong Kong to perform the song later that week. I was conflicted. I’d never performed the song live before, and it was by no means an easy song to sing, but that wasn’t what concerned me most. It was more the fear that I would be “found out,” as I described it — that people would focus on my walk rather than my music. That last time I’d performed, when those idiots yelled about me walking like an ostrich, still loomed large in my mind. The audience would be a lot bigger this time, and I couldn’t bear the thought of being made fun of again.

But this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I convinced myself that this time would be different. I took the rest of the week off of work and managed to get a last-minute ticket for a flight to Hong Kong the following day. On the flight over, I swung between moments of excitement and sheer terror. Despite my nerves, I eventually summoned the courage to perform the song in front of a crowd of thousands. Before walking on stage, my last thoughts were, “Please God, don’t let me trip over or take a fall.” My heart was pounding, and I was taking deep breaths to try to calm myself. But then I heard the introduction, “He’s flown all the way from the U.K. to support us tonight, please welcome Kashy!” and I was off. Camera flashes and a spotlight hit my eyes as the crowd erupted in applause. This was really happening, and I’d thrown myself right into the deep end.

My first headline concert in Hong Kong at the Y-Theatre on February 28, 2014. Funds for the concert were raised through a crowdfunding campaign with donations entirely from Hong Kong residents.

I was interviewed briefly on stage before I performed, and I completely messed up how to say “I support you” in Cantonese. The crowd burst out laughing, and that broke the ice. I was just relieved that they were laughing with me and not at me. I could feel their warmth and support.

As the backing track started, I missed the first line of the song, but I soon found my place and got into the swing of it. The crowd was cheering, and people started switching on their mobile phone lights and waving them in the air. There was a continuous sea of people in every direction I looked — a sea of lights. Right there and then, it was like I was a pop star on stage and, for the first time in my life, I was literally living the dream. When it was over, as I walked off stage with the sound of applause still ringing in my ears, my only thought was that I wanted to do it all over again.

Me performing “This Is My Dream” at the rally in support of HKTV outside of the Hong Kong government headquarters on October 25, 2013.

The same night of my performance at the protest, the song went to number one on the Hong Kong iTunes chart and even outsold releases from Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber in the territory. I’d come from nowhere to outsell these major artists. I had to pinch myself.

Local papers described me as an “unlikely hero for Hong Kong” and the “voice of the HKTV protests.” But I began to worry that I had been naive. In my mind, I was just coming to support a TV network that had supported my song. I didn’t know anything about the political landscape in Hong Kong. It was only afterward, when the local media started asking me questions like, “Do you fear repercussions from the Chinese government?” and “Coming from a democratic country, are you trying to democratize local people?” that I began to question what was really going on. Some reporters asked me if I felt as though I had been used as a pawn. They explained that by bringing someone from overseas, the TV network could show the government that the issue had won support and spread beyond Hong Kong. Had I been totally naive? I began to worry.

Fortunately, despite my fears, I never did get in trouble with the authorities. I’ve since performed the song at events where government officials have been in attendance. With hindsight, I suspect they could see how clueless I was about the political landscape at the time and let me off.

The following year, I relocated. I had grown increasingly restless in London and felt that it was now or never to give my music another shot. I decided to risk it all and returned to Hong Kong, armed with just my suitcase and my dream. I gave myself a deadline of three months to secure a record deal.

At first I was met with resistance: Most record labels didn’t want to work with me, as my song was the anthem of anti-government protests and they feared it would be hard to promote me on radio and TV. However, after I’d spent weeks knocking on doors, one label eventually gave me a shot, and I won a record deal and released my debut album.

My song “This Is My Dream” reaching number one on the Hong Kong iTunes chart the same night that I performed it at the Hong Kong government headquarters.

A fan reached out to me via social media, saying how much she appreciated my music. Her name was Eva, she was in her early 30s, and she was born and raised in Hong Kong. In her message, she explained how she had been having a difficult time in her job working in finance in Hong Kong, but the words to my song “Believe in You” had moved her to tears. There was something so genuine and pure about what she had written that I agreed to meet her.

From that very first meeting it felt as though we’d known each other for years. Some people just naturally radiate a light. I loved her smile, and I felt like I could open up to her, let my guard down, tell her anything and never feel judged. She completely accepted my disability as if it was no issue at all. We married in 2015, and to this day she is the one that believes in me even when I struggle to believe in myself. Even beyond what happened with my music, the single best thing that this life-changing experience has given me is Eva.

Today, I juggle music with my work as a freelance journalist. In the five years since I moved to Hong Kong, I have observed how protests in the city have gotten bigger every year. There is now more fear than ever that the territory’s core freedoms are being eroded by the pro-Beijing administration.

Most recently, the biggest protests the city has ever seen were sparked by a proposal to amend the extradition laws to make it possible to extradite people from Hong Kong to face trial in China, where there is no such thing as an independent court or impartial judges. Hong Kong residents fear that the law will be used to target any critic of Beijing’s regime. Protesters are also calling for an independent inquiry into police brutality and for the government to introduce democracy in the form of universal suffrage.

I was possibly the last person to ever perform a song in the forecourt of Hong Kong government headquarters, which is now fenced off with 10-foot metal railings — a very visible sign of how much stricter and tougher the authorities have become about warding off protesters. You couldn’t dream of even standing there now, let alone performing a protest anthem. But, for me, whenever I pass the area, it’s a reminder of the performance back in 2013 that completely transformed my life. Although today it’s surrounded by barriers, ironically, it was the very spot where I truly realized that my disability didn’t have to hold me back from my dream.