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Hong Kong’s indie music scene – can it transcend cultural and linguistic barriers?

It’s eight in the evening and I’m walking through an underpass. I think I’m near Kowloon Bay; at least, the mobile navigation system says so. A girl in red lipstick, a fedora and a long black dress hurries past me, and instincts tell me that she is an ally, that I should follow her. I reach an old building tucked away in a deserted street, and at the door I bump into an old friend of mine, a drummer I used to jam with. He takes one last drag of his cigarette and we head upstairs together. I can feel the music shaking the walls even from inside the elevator.

That took place back in 2012, the first time I ever saw a show at the Hidden Agenda live house. The band was Eatliz. I do not remember much about them, apart from the fact that they were Israeli. I do remember the cops that showed up, though.

hidden agenda

A show at Hidden Agenda. Photo: HKFP.

It often comes as a surprise to many that this international financial centre also has an underground indie music scene, one that secretly and sporadically flourishes in various locations across the city, from hidden factory buildings left over from its industrial era to the lone bar in the whitewashed streets of Wan Chai. Compared to international cities like New York or London, the indie scene in Hong Kong is a lot more subdued and less influential, and its failure to take off has a great deal to do with the lack of venues for live music. Jane Blondel, an indie promoter who has brought overseas acts such as Slowdive and Dinosaur Jr. to Hong Kong, said getting a venue is the biggest obstacle she has faced in her years of putting on shows here. “We had to turn down a lot of acts because there’s nowhere to put them on. For a city of 7 million it’s crazy how few there are, and they’re also ill-equipped and over-priced. It means that it’s very hard to break even.”

This year, Backstage Live, after a series of goodbye shows that could not save it from rising rents in the Central district, has announced that it would be closing its doors, and the same fate befell Kwun Tong’s Musician AREA. But this is not a rare occurrence, and most musicians, though saddened, are used to it by now. “It happens,” they say, shrugging. Hidden Agenda, a live house in an old Ngau Tau Kok factory building that has hosted a series of overseas acts, from As I Lay Dying to Survive Said The Prophet, moved twice before settling into its current location. It is also home to many, many local bands, and it is to them what King Tut’s is to Glasgow, perhaps. But running a live house in Hong Kong is problematic, especially under the current regulations governing the use of factory buildings; many dancers and artists who have turned the spaces into studios are all, in a way, “violating the law”. At Hidden Agenda, alcohol remains a tricky issue, and the Lands Department still pays visits to the venue from time to time. As Taiwanese cultural critic Lung Ying-tai once pointed out, “Hidden Agenda is not a bar, a restaurant or a nightclub — hence they could not get their hands on any kind of licence at all.”

FILTH — Failed in London, Try Hong Kong -

FILTH — Failed in London, Try Hong Kong

But the city’s indie scene also faces obstacles in the form of the cultural and linguistic barriers that exist within post-colonial Hong Kong. Hong Kong is culturally schizophrenic, and this is more evident in its performing arts scene than anywhere else. Local English theatre groups struggle to find a Chinese face in the audiences for their performances, and vice versa. The subject matter is also an issue. When the programme directors of the Hong Kong Arts Festival commissioned the first ever “Hong Kong drama” – FILTH — Failed in London, Try Hong Kong – they reportedly thought the play “would strike a chord with both expatriates and locals”. But how detached from reality – or ‘lei dei’, as Hongkongers would say – do you have to be to pick a piece that revolves around the struggles of upper middle class expats in Hong Kong and takes place mostly on Lamma Island? It would be a miracle if a local audience could relate to any of it at all.

Similarly, the crowd that goes to shows and the bands that tend to play at The Wanch and Orange Peel, mix like oil and water with people who frequent the Hangout in Sai Wan Ho and Hidden Agenda. Chris B, who set up The Underground and has been putting on shows in the city for over a decade, said that it’s “racially charged” to classify the audience into gweilos and locals, but admitted that “I would say bands who sing in English would have a more international audience. And if you insist on labels, this goes for both ‘gweilo’ and ‘local’ bands. If the band sings in Chinese, their audience will be more likely to be those who appreciate Chinese lyrics and being able to understand them.”

MLA

My Little Airport. Photo: Apple Daily.

Should language matter? Music is the universal language, and as Chris said, “I find that at the Underground, we often have bands that sing in either language, and for me, it’s all about the good music and not the race, ethnicity, colour or gender of the band.” At the same time, it might be difficult for expats to appreciate bands like My Little Airport, whose essence lies not in their technique, but in their lyrics — sometimes rebellious (if “donald tsang, please die” isn’t enough of an indication), sometimes poetic, but always colloquial. Even if they do sing in English at times, it’s the Hong Kong variation of the language, and local listeners can’t help but smile and feel like they’re let it on an inside joke. Not surprisingly, their shows this year sold out within hours — perhaps screaming “Fuck you, Leung Chun-ying!” onstage last year at Clockenflap helped too.

The success of Clockenflap is hardly a sign of a flourishing music scene in Hong Kong or an indication that the cultural barriers have been broken down. Despite the fact that the festival this year is hosting one of its biggest lineups yet, the Hong Kong Economic Journal recently reported that Clockenflap only survives because its organisers are willing to keep the event going even at a revenue loss. It takes incredible dedication to pull off such a feat; just a few years ago, the festival was a quiet affair in Cyberport attended by a handful of people, but over the past few years has risen through the ranks to compete with the likes of international festivals such as Soundwave and Summer Sonic. Clockenflap has brought many amazing acts to the city, from Franz Ferdinand to New Order, and for the first time ever, Hong Kong has a festival it can be proud of. At the same time, however, the growing amount of attendees does not mean that the city is now bursting with music lovers and enthusiasts. It is debatable how many of them are really there for the music; the ‘hipster gathering of the year’ draws in crowds of teenagers mostly wandering round West Kowloon drunk rather than paying attention to who is playing. “The music is the attraction, but not the final objective,” said Andy Lee, who plays guitar in local band The Sulis Club.

clockenflap

Clockenflap in 2013. Photo: HKFP.

One could also argue that, as opposed to festivals like Grasscamp and Open Sesame, Clockenflap is not really a ‘local’ festival. There is the undeniable fact that most Hong Kong acts get allocated timeslots such as in the early afternoon, when there’s barely any audience at all. This point is crystallised in the article “Clockenflap = Flapping Cock”, in which the writer noted how organiser Jay Forster said, in response to a question from the audience during a General Education Unit talk at the University of Hong Kong, that they would not be including a ‘protest stage’ for the Occupy protests (aka Umbrella Movement) because “Clockenflap was still a rather new festival, and they did not want to appear to have a strong political stance”. Maybe music and politics belong to two different, separate worlds that should not be lumped together, but I know some punks who screamed for anarchy in the UK in the 1970s that would disagree with this statement. Glastonbury, a festival rooted in radical politics and counterculture, has their very own Left Field.

Let’s also not forget that the Occupy protests were arguably the biggest social movement in the past decade. As the writer continues,“Most of the audience are quite disconnected from social realities… it’s dictated by foreigners and foreign bands, which makes it hard to attract Hongkongers who listen to Cantopop. Most of the expats are working in management-level jobs, and Hong Kong to them is merely a workplace and a place for making money. The target audience of Clockenflap is a bunch of self-indulging, ‘looking for a good time’ aristocrats; not local people who are looking to change society with the power of music.”

BOOM magazine, one of the only bilingual music publications in Hong Kong, features great reviews and music recommendations by local personalities such as Yuen Chi-chung who have made a name for themselves blogging about music. But at the same time, their feature articles on overseas legends like The Libertines (which are headlining Clockenflap this year) are informative rather than insightful, and rather entry-level Music 101. To be fair, though, it is difficult for a local magazine to come up with a new angle when covering bands that have been featured a million times in Rolling Stone and NME, and at the end of the day, they write the way they do because they need to speak to their audience. And Hong Kong in 2015 is an infant in many ways in terms of knowledge of global music culture and history.

This was not always the case; once upon a time, back in my uncle’s generation, teens in Hong Kong would don mop-tops proudly to show that they were Beatles fans, and even local rock legends Beyond, whose songs we are still singing every time there are protests, started out by listening to Pink Floyd. The middle-aged lady in the laundry downstairs from my flat could go on a thirty-minute rant about the influence music had on her while she was growing up, but few Hong Kong millennials could hold a conversation for over five minutes about music, and at indie band shows there is always the same small crowd of familiar faces. There are still enthusiastic and enlightened souls in the city, such as radio host Wong Chi-chung, but most of them are closer to our parents’ age than ours. I myself was blessed with (or forced into) a musical education at a young age; having a dad that owns  thousands of records meant that I grew up to the sound of the constant blaring of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream through the speakers. Even now, when I get excited about bands like Black Star Riders, I have to message my dad and discuss the mixture of change and continuity in the band since their Thin Lizzy days; there are few of my peers with whom I could share these sentiments. I remember when I told a friend that I was going to a Blur concert this year, and he laughed and said, “how artsy”, even though Blur was one of the biggest bands of the 90s. Here, even what is mainstream band culture to the rest of the world, is perceived as indie and alternative.

blur 2015

Blur in Hong Kong, 2015. Photo: HKFP.

But now I just sound like one of those old twats who indulges in nostalgia and won’t stop going on about how much better the older generation is compared to this one. As a friend fairly pointed out, there hasn’t recently been anything remotely close to the kind of generation-defining, genre-defying band that the Beatles was, and that really isn’t the fault of those born into this era. Back then, music would break down cultural and linguistic barriers, uniting both Cantonese and English speakers, mainstream and indie, pop and rock fans. These days, the reach of western pop culture in Hong Kong, particularly music-wise, generally fails to extend beyond the walls of nightclubs in Lan Kwai Fong and international schools, and for that, I am thankful; I shudder to think what sort of music the likes of One Direction would inspire. But there are things that give me hope. Last year, when I was at a Slowdive concert, I saw a girl who couldn’t have been more than 16, screaming and singing the lyrics to all the songs while her parents hovered protectively near her. There are also the young adults who run the fantastic Facebook page, Zenegeist, which “[shares] independent music from every corner of the world and from different eras”; there are still folks in this city who have music pulsing through their veins, you just have to dig a bit deeper to find them. I’m still waiting for the next Beyond to take Hong Kong by storm. Pro-tip to local bands: to avoid letting the cultural schizophrenia and language barriers get in the way, maybe think about making a switch to post-rock?

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Hong Kong's indie music scene - can it transcend cultural and linguistic barriers?