The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have entangled an unlikely celebrity: Kenny G. On a recent visit, the saxophonist tweeted a photograph (since deleted, screenshot here) of himself standing alongside several protesters and flashing the “victory” sign. In the body of the tweet, he wrote that he wished for a “peaceful and positive conclusion to the situation."
The Chinese government was not amused. Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the country’s foreign ministry, issued a statement that said: “Kenny G’s musical works are widely popular in China, but China’s position on the illegal Occupy Central activities is clear.”
Later on Wednesday, Kenny G (real name: Kenneth Gorelick) released a statement via his Facebook page saying that he didn’t support the protests, and “was not trying to defy government orders.” But his words did not mollify supporters of the protests. Rose Tang, a prominent student leader from China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square movement who now lives in the U.S., commented beneath the post that “Hong Kong people don’t need your clarification or support. All the peace loving people in the world are behind them.”
I spoke to Kenny G via telephone in Haikou, China, where he is scheduled to participate in a celebrity pro-am golf tournament this weekend.
Matt Schiavenza: Had you been following the events in Hong Kong? Or did you just happen on the protests while walking around?
Kenny G: Like everyone else, I’d been following the events on TV, and obviously I knew there were things going on in Hong Kong. I could see the crowds from my hotel room, and being naturally curious, I just wanted to see what was happening.
I do this a lot on tour. I’m not the sort of person who just stays in my hotel room and never leaves. Going out can be as simple as going to a restaurant, or going out for a run. I like talking to local people. If I get an afternoon off before a show in, say, New Jersey, then I’m going to go out and walk around.
Schiavenza: You’ve been famous in China, and Hong Kong, for a long time. How quickly were you recognized?
Kenny G: As soon as I left my hotel room people came right up to me. I probably took 40 to 50 pictures with people before I even got to the demonstration site. I’m very recognizable. You don’t have a big mop of long curly hair and not expect to be recognized. And now that everyone these days has a cell phone and a camera, they all want a picture.
My music’s been popular for 20, 25 years in China, and I’ve been coming here about once a year on tour. I’m flattered that my melodies have somehow resonated with the Chinese people. It’s an incredible feeling.
Schiavenza: What happened when you encountered the protesters?
Kenny G: I was there for all of five minutes. I was just curious and wanted to walk around. I had no idea which people were demonstrators, and which people were just there. It’s a busy, crowded city. I was just there taking pictures with fans, really, which is something I do, if not 100 percent of the time, then almost. I hung out for about five minutes and then went on my merry way.
Schiavenza: Did anyone draw you into a political conversation?
Kenny G: Oh no, not at all. The people I talked to just seemed like normal fans. “Oh, can I take a picture with you, I’ve listened to your music all my life," stuff like that. I have this song called “Going Home” that’s played everywhere in China when it’s time for people to leave someplace, so I’m not surprised people know my songs.
I read an article somewhere saying the Chinese government sent me down to Hong Kong to play “Going Home” so the protesters would leave. (Laughs). Sorry, I hate to disappoint people, but I’m not the new “foreign force” sent to interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs.
Schiavenza: A protester told the South China Morning Post that you told him, “As Americans we take democracy for granted … You guys hang in there. Hope you guys win in the end.”
Kenny G: No, I didn’t say that. Not at all.
Schiavenza: Were you surprised that people cared about your appearance at the protests?
Kenny G: I was surprised, yes. I don’t take myself that seriously. I enjoy walking around, seeing things, and then going on my way. I put out those tweets in order to clarify things, to make sure my side of the story was told correctly.
Schiavenza: Speaking of Twitter, you deleted a tweet showing you standing next to protesters and flashing the “victory” sign. Why?
Kenny G: People were taking it the wrong way, so I felt like there was no advantage for me to leave it up there. To me, it was an innocent tweet. I was basically saying “here I am at the site.” I felt there was no point in leaving if it rubbed people the wrong way.
Schiavenza: Were you surprised that the government issued a statement about you? Had you had contact with the Chinese government before?
Kenny G: Yes, I was surprised because, again: I was just curious about what was happening, like anyone else would be. There were lots of people walking around taking pictures so I didn’t really think of much else.
I’m just a sax player. I just have a saxophone in my mouth, so there haven’t exactly been many opportunities to censor me.
Schiavenza: Jackie Chan, with whom you were photographed in China last month, has been critical of Hong Kong’s protesters. What do you think about that?
Kenny G: Jackie and I are friends, and I don’t know how he’s chosen to handle the situation.
This is what happens when I go to China… My music is super popular there. Look at my Chinese big brother! He can sing pic.twitter.com/VdAAWZa7oy— Kenny G (@officialkennyg) September 27, 2014
Schiavenza: What do you think about musicians who make political statements about China?
Kenny G: I spend way more time practicing the saxophone than I do thinking about this. I don’t take myself that seriously. I practice very hard, and I try to be the best saxophone player I can be. I just try to focus on that.