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Speaker 1 (00:00):


Tom Wright (00:05):

It’s Thursday, October the 23rd, 2014, just after dawn, and Adam Wilkes turns over in bed in Shanghai and reaches for his cell phone.

Adam Wilkes (00:16):

I just woke up in the morning, and your phone’s on silent, and you check your phone, and you see all these missed calls. And when somebody’s miscalled you like 20 times, they either butt dialed you a lot, or there’s like a serious fucking problem going on.

Tom Wright (00:31):

Adam’s got 20 missed calls from Kenny G, the saxophonist.

Adam Wilkes (00:35):

And I’m like, I just can’t imagine that Kenny would’ve been blowing up my phone all night. But then I checked the emails, and it was like, “Did you get this? Can you call me?” And I was like, there must be something going on.

Tom Wright (00:46):

That was an understatement. A few hours earlier, Kenny had been on the receiving end of a stern rebuke from China’s government. Pro-democracy demonstrations were blowing up in Hong Kong, and China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, in a press conference, had just warned Kenny not to get involved. Kenny G, his smooth jazz revered by Chinese fans, was inadvertently mired in a dangerous political battle, and now it was up to Adam, his promoter in China, to sort it out.


I’m Tom Wright, an author and podcaster.

Adam Wilkes (01:26):

I’m Adam Wilkes, a concert promoter, and this is Night of Show.

Tom Wright (01:42):

Why China is so crazy for Kenny G, whose real name is Kenneth Gorelick, is anyone’s guess. For sure, he’s one of the world’s best-selling artists, with global sales of 75 million records. But his fame in China far outstrips other global superstars like Beyonce or Justin Bieber. One explanation for Kenny’s popularity is that his tune “Going Home” is one of the nation’s most recognized Western songs, turned on to usher customers out of malls at closing time,

Kenny G (02:12):

One of my songs became really popular. There’s a song called “Going Home,” and they play it everywhere. I mean, I heard it in Tiananmen Square. I heard it out of the loudspeakers. Probably hundreds of millions of people hear my song every day. Every day. And the problem is that that song is their cue to go home, so whenever I play it there, it’s my encore, obviously. If I play it in the middle of the set, I look up and they’re all gone.

Tom Wright (02:36):

By 2014, anyone under the age of 25 in China would have heard “Going Home” their entire lives.

Adam Wilkes (02:44):

They play it, when the airplane is landing, it comes on, you know? I did a tour with Kenny in China and the plane landed, and as a joke, he was on the plane with me, he stood up and started playing the song. People lost their minds. They couldn’t believe it. The guy from the PA system was there on the plane. But yeah, I mean, he is remarkably famous in China.

Tom Wright (03:07):

Since 1989, when Going Home became a hit in China, Kenny G has toured the country multiple times.

Adam Wilkes (03:13):

Everybody knows his songs, and they also all know him. And that’s something that I always found, from my years in China, people would sometimes know the music of a Western artist, but they wouldn’t necessarily be able to connect the song with the face and the name. And with Kenny, he’s got a very particular hairstyle and so on, it was like people just knew this guy.

Tom Wright (03:35):

By 2014, Kenny G, with his long, curly hair and stubble, had been coming to China for a quarter of a century without any problem. He’d just played four concerts in China with his friend, actor Jackie Chan, making an appearance at one of them. Unlike many of the Western pop acts that Adam promoted, Kenny G was an easy sell to China’s censors. His music was unwaveringly inoffensive, and even more important, he had been able to steer clear of any political controversy whatsoever, a feat that’s far easier said than done.


There is a maze of red tape that artists have to navigate when performing in China. Issues you can’t mention, themes you can’t touch, and even songs you can’t perform. Before shows, the Culture Ministry runs background checks and pre-approves set lists. Sometimes artists come up against a moral issue, like when the Stones had to drop “Honky Tonk Women” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” from a 2006 performance, a ruling that didn’t bother Mick Jagger that much.

Mick Jagger (04:38):

Fortunately, we have 400 more songs that we can play, so it’s not really an issue.

Tom Wright (04:45):

Other times, it’s political. Take Katy Perry’s 2015 performance in Taiwan.

Adam Wilkes (04:51):

She got into a whole world of trouble at her show. Somebody in the front audience is waving a flag. Of course, they’re waving the Free Taiwan flag, which, you know, do you know how many people know what the Free Taiwan flag looks like? Not many.

Tom Wright (05:04):

Yeah, I’m not sure I know what it looks like.

Adam Wilkes (05:05):

I’m not sure I know it either. So she takes the flag and she drapes it around her, and there’s winds blowing from the fans, very dramatic moment. And she’s wearing a dress, as luck goes, that happens to look like a giant sunflower. Of course, she doesn’t know that it’s the Free Taiwan flag, and she doesn’t know that she’s dressed in the outfit that is symbolic with their independence movement.

Tom Wright (05:31):

Two years later, Katy was refused a visa to perform in China. Kenny had avoided mentioning Taiwan. He’d also managed not to get embroiled in the sensitive issue of Tiananmen Square, as happened to Taylor Swift.

Newscaster (05:46):

Taylor Swift’s initials TS could be mistaken as a reference for Tiananmen Square, where I’m standing right now. And her album, 1989, the year she was born, is also the year when hundreds of pro-democracy protestors died in a government crackdown here.

Taylor Swift (06:00):

The only thing to do right now is I think we should take a trip down memory lane throughout the songs of 1989. Would you like to join me, Shanghai?

Tom Wright (06:11):

So did it go into China with that name?

Adam Wilkes (06:12):


Tom Wright (06:13):

So they kind of bought it, that it wasn’t to do with Tiananmen Square?

Adam Wilkes (06:16):

Yeah. They were not happy about it though.

Tom Wright (06:19):

Maybe Kenny had just gotten lucky over the years due to an inoffensive birth year and inoffensive initials, and a performing style that didn’t favor draping himself in fan’s flags. But also, perhaps Kenny just wasn’t really a political type, unlike Bjork, who had shouted, “Tibet, Tibet,” at the end of a concert in Shanghai in 2008.

Bjork (06:38):

Tibet, Tibet. Tibet, Tibet. Tibet, Tibet.

Tom Wright (06:50):

Adam was the promoter of that concert too, and afterward, he was called in and had to grovel to authorities. In episode two, we saw how Adam dealt with communist officials in Cuba during a Rolling Stones concert, so let’s just say he had experience with authoritarian regimes. But Kenny G, Adam wasn’t expecting this.


October the 22nd, 2014, was just a normal celebrity Wednesday for the sax player. He woke up in his luxury hotel in Hong Kong, the former British colony, with not a lot to do. He was killing time before a performance at a celebrity golf tournament across the border in mainland China involving Jessica Alba, John Daly, and others. To kill time, he decided to walk out in a city he’d been to many times before. But the mood was very different this time around.

Newscaster (07:44):

In the streets, a sea of umbrellas, the symbol of a mass demonstration underway in Hong Kong.

Adam Wilkes (07:50):

All of Hong Kong, or a large part of Hong Kong had these protests going on, and it was all over the news, and it was just everywhere. And he had gone out, and Hong Kong’s a really Manhattan-like, walkable city, and he had been walking back to wherever he was staying, and he ended up going through the protest area, which was probably, for the most part, unavoidable.

Tom Wright (08:12):

By the fall of 2014, Hong Kong had ground to a halt due to what was known as the Occupy Central, or the Umbrella Movement, as Hong Kong students mounted sit-in pro-democracy protests against Beijing, closing the city’s main thoroughfares.

Adam Wilkes (08:28):

They were not violent protests. The Chinese government had yet to take very firm action against the protest. For the most part, they were peaceful protests that were all over the central area of Hong Kong.

Tom Wright (08:42):

As Kenny walked in the city, there was a festive atmosphere. Then, some of the young protestors sitting in tented villages on the streets, playing guitars and singing, recognized the sax player.

Adam Wilkes (08:54):

And given how famous he is, people know him there. People come up to him, they take his photo, they ask for autographs just like celebrities do that all the time. It just happened to be that he was walking through this protest area, and he had his photo taken with the protestors.

Tom Wright (09:10):

Dressed in chinos and a white shirt, a light navy sweater thrown over his shoulders, and instantly recognizable curly hair, Kenny didn’t really understand the contours of this protest. He started to snap some selfies.

Adam Wilkes (09:24):

And it turns out there was several photos. It was basically him standing in front of protestors with the signs that said “Democracy for Hong Kong” and that kind of stuff, and then flashing like the victory sign with protestors.

Tom Wright (09:39):

Kenny then tweeted one of the photos with the following message: “In Hong Kong at the site of the demonstration. I wish everyone a peaceful and positive conclusion to this situation.” As political statements go, it might have seemed fairly benign, but not for Beijing. Twitter is banned in China, but not Hong Kong, and the tweet went viral, getting reposted all over the internet. Pro-Beijing voices began to criticize the post, and quickly, Kenny took it down. But it was too late.

Adam Wilkes (10:13):

So once you’ve posted a position, you’ve got half the people mad at you, and once you remove your position, you’ve got the other half mad at you. And then what really fanned the flames, which sort of took this into the realm of ridiculous, the Chinese Foreign Ministry would do an open press conference with the international press in Beijing. And one of the journalists asked what they thought about Grammy award-winning internationally famous saxophonist Kenny G joining the Hong Kong protest movement.

Tom Wright (10:44):

Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, took Kenny to task. In a statement, she said, and I quote, “Kenny G’s musical works are widely popular in China, but China’s position on the illegal Occupy Central activities in Hong Kong is very clear. We hope that foreign governments and individuals speak and act cautiously and not support the Occupy Central and other illegal activities in any form.” End quote.

Adam Wilkes (11:14):

Now, arguably, at that particular moment, the Foreign Minister didn’t know anything about it, but they probably had some sort of like bucket language that you would always respond to this. And it essentially came out that China does not support intervention from foreign forces, and sort of implying that Kenny G was part of the resistance movement.

Tom Wright (11:35):

China often claims the CIA and MI6 are behind democracy protests in Hong Kong, and now it was painting China’s beloved Kenny G with the same brush.

Adam Wilkes (11:46):

It basically took what would’ve been a bit of nonsense, and it made it all of a sudden a government issue.

Tom Wright (11:53):

By Wednesday night, on his way back from a dinner, news of the China press conference had reached Kenny. He frantically tried to contact Adam, who had promoted many of his concerts and speaks fluent Mandarin, but Adam was already in bed. As he awoke the next morning, with 20 missed calls from Kenny, he knew that something was amiss.

Adam Wilkes (12:14):

So I call him, and I was about to say, “How was your dinner?” Before I could even get a word in, he goes, “Hey, bro. I think I’m in big trouble.” And I was like, “Excuse me?” And he just had this sound like, he sounded like he hadn’t slept. He sounded really stressed out. While he’s sort of rambling, I just Google like, “Kenny G Hong Kong,” and he’s just going on and on, “People are upset. I don’t know what to do.” And the first article pops up, it’s in the Guardian: “China furious after Kenny G appears to back Hong Kong protestors.” And then the next one, it was South China Morning Post: “I don’t support Hong Kong’s Occupy protests, says Kenny G, after stern words from Beijing.” And then the BBC: “Anger after Kenny G tweets then deletes.”


Now I’m like, “All right, Kenny, while you were talking, I was googling, so let’s start at the beginning. Please tell me, help me understand what’s happening, because this is… What’s up?” And he goes, “Well, I went home, and then people, they took the photo.” I said, “But did you post something?” And he was like, “Well, I put a photo on Twitter, just the one photo.” And then he’s like, “And then I got a lot of backlash. Then I didn’t know what to do, and I kept calling you, and you didn’t answer your phone.” I was like, “Well, it was like 2:00 in the morning.”


He was like, “Well, anyway, you didn’t answer. So I called Jackie Chan,” I’m like, “You called who?” He’s like, “you know, Jackie Chan, the kung fu actor.” “Why would you call Jackie Chan?” And he’s like, “Well, he’s the only other person I know in Asia, and he answered his phone.” I was like, “What did Jackie Chan tell you?” And he was like, “Oh, he was really upset with me. And he was really mad at me, and he kept yelling at me, and he kept telling me I got to take this down. So yeah, so then I took the tweet down, because clearly it upset the Chinese government and a lot of people. But then when I took it down, a lot of other people got mad at me, and I really didn’t sleep much. What do you think I should do about this?”

Tom Wright (14:14):

Jackie Chan was born in Hong Kong, but had become disliked by many in the territory for his criticism of the protests. Adam had to thread the needle: deescalate with Beijing, but without angering pro-democracy voices. Kenny had put a post on Facebook, trying to clarify that he was just going for a walk, not defying government orders. That caused a rebuke in the comments section from Rose Tang, a student leader from the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement, now living in the US. She wrote, and I quote, “Hong Kong people don’t need your clarification or support. All peace-loving people in the world are behind them.” End quote. This is a conundrum many foreign performers have faced in China: how to get access to China’s huge market, without being perceived by the global public as morally dubious.

Adam Wilkes (15:10):

What do you do? So I just suggested that he remain calm, and he should not make any tweets. He should not post anything else, and he absolutely should not call Jackie Chan again. So I called my little brother, and my little brother had been working in crisis management PR. So my brother, his whole thing was Kenny is, the public persona that he has, is he’s funny and fun-loving and a little silly and pokes fun at himself. So why don’t we just own this?

Tom Wright (15:44):

Adam set up an exclusive interview for Kenny with a journalist from the Atlantic. It was supposed to be a lighthearted look at a ridiculous situation.

Adam Wilkes (15:54):

That was kind of how the story got crafted, that let’s have a little bit of fun with this. So the journalist was like, “Look, I got to do my own research. But yeah, this is the place that Kenny occupies in popular culture. It could be a fun story. And this is sort of ridiculous. Why does the Chinese government give a shit what Kenny G says or thinks?” So anyway, we did a little bit of media coaching with him, and we’re like, “Look, let’s make this lighthearted. Poke a little fun at your curly hair. Everybody likes a Kenny G hair joke. Go for that. Open with that.” So he’s very good at media training, so he just kind of took it all in, and it’s like, “How could you be the foreign force to interfere in Hong Kong affairs? That’s ridiculous. Just remind them, you’re not a politician, you’re a sax player.” So he’s taking this all in, takes it all in stride, and he just recites all of the media messaging perfect.

Tom Wright (16:42):

The interview was conducted over the phone, and afterward, Kenny seemed more relaxed.

Adam Wilkes (16:48):

He’s like, “Look, I think it went really well. The guy basically asked the things that you thought he would, and I did all the points that we rehearsed, and I stayed right on message. But there was one curveball.” And I was like, “Oh, what was that, Kenny?” “Well, he asked me if I discussed politics with the protestors, which I thought was a strange ask.” I said, “Kenny, that’s a very specific question. Why would he ask that?” And Kenny kind of started mumbling and futtering.


I said, “Kenny,” I said, “Hold on. These type of journalists don’t just ask random things. He asked you if you talked politics with the protestors. So did you really tell me everything that happened?” And he’s like, “I may have have said something.” And I was like, “Well, what do you mean you may have said something?” And he was like, “Well, maybe some people asked me what I thought, and I told them they’re doing great. Keep on fighting. Keep on fighting.”

Tom Wright (17:40):

In fact, a protestor told the South China Morning Post that Kenny had told him, and I quote, “As Americans, we take democracy for granted. You guys hang in there. Hope you guys win in the end.” And the Atlantic journalist had asked Kenny about it.

Adam Wilkes (17:57):

And I said, “Kenny, and what did you say back?” He was like, “Oh don’t worry. I just denied it.” And I said, “Kenny, if an investigative journalist asks you such a specific question, don’t you think he’d have evidence to back it up?” And he goes, “Adam, don’t get mad at me. I’m a performer. I just want to be loved. They seemed like that’s what they wanted to hear.”

Tom Wright (18:24):

Kenny G weathered the storm, which blew over as the government focused on cracking down on the escalating protests. Over the following years, they would swell in size as young Hong Kongers demanded change. In 2019, as hundreds of thousands of people marched through the streets of Hong Kong and China retaliated with more violence, the general manager of the Houston Rockets NBA team, Daryl Morey, tweeted an image that read, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”

Adam Wilkes (18:57):

And the NBA had all of their television coverage in China removed for years, multiple years.

Tom Wright (19:03):

By then, the mood had changed. The carnival atmosphere was gone, replaced by teargas and beatings. Hong Kong was resolutely under Beijing’s control, the student movement in tatters, and the chance of democracy a distant memory,

Adam Wilkes (19:20):

If you go today, I mean, now it’s much more tense than it was then. But at that time you could sort of navigate it. You just didn’t necessarily talk about it.

Tom Wright (19:31):

Perhaps Kenny G just got lucky. He wasn’t banned, although COVID has made it hard to tour China. He’s as popular as ever in the country. And today, you can go to any mall in China at closing time, and you’ll still hear “Going Home.” It’s as if nothing ever happened.


Coming up next week on Night of Show.

Ronald Reagan (20:11):

I’ve just called in Ambassador Phil Habib to settle the Jim Watt-Beach Boy controversy.

John Meglin (20:18):

James Watt decided that these rock and roll bands that attract drugs should not play on the 4th of July.

Nancy Reagan (20:27):

Say yes to your life. And when it comes to drugs and alcohol, just say no.

John Meglin (20:31):

I don’t know if you get much more American than Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and you don’t get much more American than the Beach Boys.

Tom Wright (20:42):

We want to hear from you. Perhaps you experienced a life-changing moment at a concert or meeting one of your favorite artists. Send us your best stories via voice message at That’s We’ll include the best of them on future episodes, and you stand to win Night of Show merch, also available on the show’s website, Thanks for listening.


Night of Show is a production of Project Brazen in partnership with PRX. It’s written and presented by me, Tom Wright, and Adam Wilkes. The executive producers are Adam Wilkes, Paul Gongaware, John Meglen, Tom Wright, and Bradley Hope. Sandy Smallens is the executive producer for Audiation. The story editor is Joe Levy. Mariangel Gonzales is senior producer. Matthew Rubenstein is the producer. Edited and mixed by Tom Sullivan and Paul Vitolins at Audiography. Original music by Paul Vitolins, with additional music by Tom Sullivan. Theme music by William Whitman. Lucy Woods is head of research. Ryan Ho is the creative designer for the project, with cover art design by Julien Pradier. Clearance counsel is Innes Smolansky, Esquire.

Speaker 1 (22:03):


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