"Happy Birthday to You": Music as Nonviolent Weapon in the Umbrella Movement

"Happy Birthday to You": Music as Nonviolent Weapon in the Umbrella Movement
Winnie W C Lai
In protests, music and sound often play a cardinal role in unifying individuals via social performances in which they voice out mutual political demands. During the 79-day Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in the autumn of 2014, many forms of music and sound that are expected in local protests were heard, including slogan-chanting, booing, and the collective singing of Cantopop songs. However, performances of “Happy Birthday to You” and other “inappropriate” songs—that is, “nonsensical” events—were heard as well. These sonic events first occurred unexpectedly and ironically in the demonstration sites, but were nonetheless grasped and performed as a political act, functioning as nonviolent weapons used to “attack” political opponents. These nonsensical musical acts soon began to make sense or sound meaningful as protesters recontextualized the lighthearted nature of these songs to particular situations in the protest and adapted this paradoxical experience into the idea of 無 厘 頭 mouleitau, a cultural phenomenon that appears in Hong Kong films and other media platforms to represent a sense of localism. Drawing from insights in musicology, sound studies and critical theory, this article adopts an interdisciplinary approach to study the role of these unexpected sounds in the Umbrella Movement. In particular, this article explores how and why nonsensical musical acts were appropriated and put to political use in the protest space.

Publication date


Journal title, volume/issue number, page range

Hong Kong Studies Vol.1, No. 1, pp.66-82






Art and Culture