In 1997, as sovereignty over Hong Kong passed from the UK to China, Denise Ho didn’t care about politics.
She was just another gongzhu, or “Hong Kong pig,” uninterested in things that did not involve her and too busy with her burgeoning music career to rock the boat by touching controversial issues.
Twenty years later, the 40-year-old Cantonese pop star and actress has been arrested by police, dropped by sponsors, blacklisted from China, and emerged as one of the city’s leading LGBT activists.
“Fear is a contaminating disease,” she told CNN. “I have this younger generation who listens to my music. So I think I have this responsibility to do the right thing, and not spread fear by my actions.”
Ho’s attitude began shifting in 2012, when she came out as gay at the fourth annual Hong Kong Pride Parade.
Days later, she watched in appalled amazement as the city’s parliament struck down a motion to launch a public consultation on LGBT discrimination.
“It wasn’t about gay marriage, nothing serious like that, just trying to do a public survey and it was blocked,” she said.
“I was so angry back then, and that was the first time I saw how unfair the system is, how the government controlled everything.”
She had a similar awakening two years later, when police fired tear gas in a futile attempt to disperse thousands of mostly-young pro-democracy protesters who had taken to the streets for the “Umbrella Movement.”
“That was an enraging moment for me and for many other Hong Kong people,” Ho said. “As a celebrity, as a public persona, as an adult, you have to speak out in support of these students and these other Hong Kong citizens.”
She took to the streets herself, becoming one of the movement’s most outspoken supporters, and one of the last to be hauled off by police when they cleared the protest camps.
Becoming more politically involved hasn’t been without repercussions.
Ho was attacked in Chinese state media as “Hong Kong poison”. Even local newspapers warned she might be committing “career suicide” with her political activism.
Luxury brand Lancome canceled a promotional concert featuring Ho amid criticism from Beijing, and she found herself censored and blacklisted in China. Lancome said it chose to cancel the Ho concert over “safety reasons,” but didn’t elaborate further.
As Hong Kong prepares to mark 20 years of Chinese rule on July 1, Ho says this type of Chinese pressure and self-censorship is becoming more and more common.
“This is a very serious issue in Hong Kong because it’s not only happening in the entertainment industry, it’s happening everywhere,” she said.
“We are losing our uniqueness and most of the bigger names are drifting towards the Chinese market.”
Fears were fueled last year when revelations emerged that five Hong Kong booksellers were allegedly abducted by Chinese government agents for publishing material critical of China’s leaders.
As the city grows closer to China, many younger Hong Kongers are also drifting further and further away. A poll this week by Hong Kong University found that only 3.1% of respondents aged 18 to 29 identified themselves as Chinese.
“People are getting quite reluctant to claim themselves as Chinese because of what’s happening with the Chinese government,” Ho said.
This week, incoming Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she wanted children to be taught “I am Chinese” from kindergarten, in the wake of stern warnings by Beijing over growing support for Hong Kong independence in the city.
How Hong Kong has changed since 1997
Despite her fears for the future, Ho remains optimistic that Hong Kongers are becoming more aware of their freedoms and the city’s unique identity.
“It’s a difficult time but it’s also an interesting time to be in Hong Kong right now because you are facing a lot of challenges but with challenges come chance,” she said.
“This is a very special time when Hong Kong people can redefine ourselves,”Ho said.
CNN’s Daisy Lee, Kristie Lu Stout and Angus Watson contributed reporting.