The King of You Tube

The banners have been pulled down, the leftover campaign flyers are headed for landfill or papering the bottoms of birdcages, and the last lonely, sticky salty-sweet crumbs of double yolk mooncakes have been swept away. Hong Kong’s election season, and the Mid Autumn Festival, are officially over.

Long Hair’s folded up his lantern.

And gone back to work. (He needs to hire a new head assistant–anyone interested?)

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s journalistic pundits and analysts have finally started to catch on to the real big story of this election. The early spin–that the vote was a huge loss for the pan-Democrats–fell apart within 24 hours, after people had a chance to do the math and figure out that the total percentage of Hong Kongers who voted for pro-democracy candidates was the same as four years ago. The second spin, that Hong Kongers voted from their pocketbooks for grassroots candidates, became the narrative du jour for the rest of the week. But then, the polling results from individual stations came out and revealed this puzzling fact: Long Hair and his party, the so-called “radical” League of Social Democrats, polled just as strongly, if not more so, in middle and upper middle neighborhoods as they did in public housing estates.

Which leaves two big mysteries:

1. Why did a grassroots, supposedly working-class party like the LSD pull so many voters from across the economic class spectrum?
2. Why didn’t any of the pre-election polls predict the big victories of Long Hair and the LSD?

My handle on this, until a day or so ago, was that the polls had simply missed a lot of Long Hair’s voters.  Most of the local pollsters work from number lists of fixed-line telephones, which are practically pre-historic relics here in HK, where 98% of folks have mobile phones. I also figured that, since people often vote for candidates who reflect themselves and their lifestyles, and since Long Hair practically owns the brand name of “rebel”, that a typical Long Hair voter would either hang up the phone on a pollster, or mess with them:  “Sure, I’m gonna vote for James Tien. That guy really knows his way around a banana.”

Still, there was something missing in the picture, a blank spot on the radar. But then suddenly, it hit me while I was watching the now-viral Gary Chan Hak-kan video, “Try My Breast”, and surfing the links to it on You Tube. That’s how I found the clip, from TVB, of Long Hair’s wonderful election night speech–the one in which he now (famously) grabs the open mike to gloat at the pro-Beijing flacks of DAB: “You spent ten million dollars, and you only got two seats, and we got five. Go to bed!” (The powers that be quickly turned the mike off, so Long Hair’s follow up comment, in which he uses a rich Cantonese phrase (sau pei) that likens the DAB to tofu scum or a foreskin, take your pick, didn’t get broadcast).

After you get past the thrill of enjoying Leung Kwok Hung’s gleeful, in-your-face political showmanship, what you notice is this: the video clip has grabbed more than 159,000 views–that is, more than three times the number of people who actually voted for Long Hair. Not only that, this week the video’s received more than 450 viewer comments.

I read through the responses–some are in English, but most are in the language I like to call “Internet Chinese”, a fusion of traditional characters, spiked with spoken (often profane) Cantonese and English words and letters. 98% aren’t comments really, but cheers. Some of them echo Long Hair’s “Good Night DAB!” from the video. Others shout, “Go Long Hair!” “Long Hair is the best!” “You’re a hero!” Some repeat their cheers 3, or 10, or 50 times. A few flamers materialize, only to be squashed to a pulp by masses of indignant, Long Hair supporting netizens.

This all looked familiar to me. I spent the spring in the U.S. reading similar flame wars on the political blogs during the presidential primaries. The landslide winner of those flame wars was Barack Obama, who leveraged his netizen fanbase into political capital, and won the primary. Obama became the King of the Blogs.

But Leung Kwok Hung, Long Hair, has become more than that. He is HK’s Mong Sih Wong —King of the Netizens.

Unlike Obama, Long Hair didn’t plan or strategize his huge popularity in the online world. Like most things Long Hair, it just kind of happened. Long Hair has always had a base of fanboys (in 2004, his strongest demographic at the polls was young men), and I noticed when I first started hanging out around his office four years ago that it was run, mainly, by shy, kind of geeky Hong Kong guys in their twenties who spent most of their time staring into the computer screen. (And who could be counted on, in the event of a computer crash, to help get you back up and running).

From the beginning, Long Hair’s website was a central part of his operation, and (unlike most other “straight” Legco member’s websites) constantly changing and updating. Long Hair’s office staff used it as a double edged tool: to alert followers to his packed schedule of upcoming demonstrations, and to document the demonstrations (especially any clashes with the police) through photos and videography.

The hottest part of the Long Hair website, back in the beginning, was its board, or  “touh leuhn keui” (in Cantonese, literally, “discussion corner”). For a while, one of Long Hair’s staff members spent most of his time on the job running it, and the website. But after about a year, Long Hair and businessman Siu Yeuk Yuen launched the Internet radio project,, and the discussion action moved over to that board, and to its sister project,

Every week for the last four years, with few lapses, Long Hair has appeared twice a week on programs on One program is a loose, free-ranging, two and a half hour political discussion with Mr. Siu. The other show–and, I would say, the more important one, in terms of Long Hair’s rise as Netizen King, is his soccer program.

Long Hair loves football, maybe even more than he loves politics. His fellow commentators on his football broadcasts happen to overlap almost 100 percent with his computer-geek fanboy followers. They’re the ones who found the wallpaper of Che Guevara’s portrait to put on his mobile phone screen,and who downloaded and installed the MP3 of the “Internationale” that plays every time Long Hair gets a phone call.

They are, also, the guys who helped transform him, at the age of 50, from an Internet sideliner to a tech-savvy Internet user. It used to be that an email to Long Hair was as likely to reach him as a message in a bottle–he was a phone guy, all the way. (He is so old school he can’t even type in Chinese, he writes with a pen.) But now he regularly answers and reads his email (in English), surfs, and finds the viral videos before I do. What happened? Well, we acquire new languages and skills when we have a strong need for them, and once Long Hair’s net geek football comrades showed him that he could find the (illegal) live feeds of European matches on Chinese websites, his tech fluency went exponential.  Now he surfs and downloads–music, films, videos–like a pro. More important, he knows the online world not as a tourist, but because he lives there too.

During the Legco campaign, as essayist and netizen badboy Martin Oei points out in his great article today in the HK Economic Journal (warning: it’s behind a pay wall, and in Chinese. It would take me all day to translate so I hope Roland does), some candidates tried to jump on the web bandwagon. Some joined Facebook. “Broomhead” Regina Ip hired rap musicians to make her a cringe worthy promo video called “Reginababy”. As it usually does in Hong Kong, a Reginababy parody appeared almost instantly, and (of course!) has out-polled the original.

(And, guess who’s behind the parody? None other than fokguy, aka Kay Lam, aka the creator of the fabulously snarky parody of the government’s official 2007 Hong Kong Handover video “Folk Guy’s Always With You”.)

It’s an incestuous world, this Hong Kong netizen universe. This is, after all, probably the most connected city in the world. We Hong Kongers are wired up the wazoo, to cellphones, computers, heck, even our television comes through a broadband connection. Internet culture here is more intense, pervasive and powerful than it is in the U.S., where there are so many other media diversions competing for attention, and where you really can, still, escape to places beyond the reach of the Wired World. Here, in small, densely-packed HK, you can’t. If you lose your temper and your cool and suddenly start screaming at the guy next to you on the bus, you can be sure that someone will quietly whip out his cellphone and film you and the next thing you know you’ll be screaming your Cantonese profanity in front of 200,000 netizens on You Tube. With subtitles.

In Hong Kong, more than perhaps any other city in the world, we live our lives on You Tube. The wackiness and spontaneous non-conformity that in London, or New York, invigorates street life doesn’t exist here. People are reserved, conservative, unwilling to risk making a public fuss, being the object of attention. But on You Tube, you can feel free to shout and snark and behave like a citizen of a less inhibited society. That’s why, in vast numbers, Hong Kongers have taken up residence online. Charles Dickens did his research for his novels by walking the streets of London; to find the soul of modern Hong Kong you gotta surf in Chinese on YouTube.

Really, there’s only one public figure in Hong Kong who breaks the mold, and routinely steps out of line, shouts and behaves outrageously in public, rather than behind the safety wall of a computer. Who dresses as he pleases and doesn’t give a fig or fart about what anyone thinks.

And that’s Long Hair.* No wonder he’s the hero, the King of the Netizens. In the parallel universe of Hong Kong’s You Tube, the net boys are his avatars, his disciples in the practice of free speech. Every televised appearance he makes, every time he stands up to speak in Legco, they record, creatively splice and upload it online. Then they skewer his enemies who “try their breast“. Even if Long hired a top political consultant, they couldn’t do a better job of image-making than this army of committed, clever netizens. (And, since Hong Kong election rules still ban tv and radio political advertisements, any traditional consultant coming here would be working like a plumber with no tools).

Thanks to the netizens in the discussion rooms, on the Internet radio, and You Tube, Long Hair is more than just a politician, he’s become a leading Hong Kong brand. He stands for sticking it to the mighty and powerful. For speaking out in public. For daring, and being brave. A vote for him isn’t just a ideological choice, it is much more powerful than that. You vote for Long Hair, because at some deep level you wish you could be as completely and freely yourself in the real world, as you are in the virtual one. And, knowing that you can’t, you vote for Long Hair to say, “Thanks”.

Such emotions transcend issues of income and class, just as Internet use does in super-wired Hong Kong. And they have a deeper, profounder pull than political platforms or propaganda. Most crucially: they don’t register on pollster’s questionnaires, which explains why the pre-election polls didn’t predict the Long Hair victory. And that brings up a real problem, as we head into the age of online campaigning, in Hong Kong and all over the world. With the old-fashioned tools at our command, we can easily count the 44,763 Hong Kong voters who made Leung Kwok Hung a legislative council member. But how do we begin to enumerate, or even identify the citizens of You Tube City who  made Long Hair a political and cultural icon? 

*I’ve always wondered why the Hong Kong press almost always prefaces any mention of “Long Hair” with the word “radical”. Yeah, sure, he’s a Trotskyite, but Leung Kwok Hung’s politics of social democracy certainly wouldn’t raise eyebrows in any European country. My suspicion is that people see Long Hair as radical not because of his political ideas, which fall well within the left-center spectrum of Western democracies, but because of his uninhibited public behavior, which contrasts so sharply with Hong Kong’s straightlaced norms.

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