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Interview: Meet Vic Shing, the photographer quietly documenting Hong Kong’s underground music scene

People joke that the Hong Kong indie crowd is small and that – at shows – you’re always bound to see the same people. But the one familiar face you will almost definitely see at these events is Vic Shing, the 27-year-old photographer behind the Facebook page Music Surveillance. Be it Focal Fair, Hidden Agenda, or even Fei Ngo Shan – you can trust that Shing will be there, snapping away.

 After repeatedly bumping into him at different gigs over the past year, HKFP finally sat down with Shing at Cafe Hillywood in Tsim Sha Tsui – a favourite hangout for local music lovers. We asked him about his passion and what he thought of the scene. 

vic shing

Vic Shing. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

According to your Patreon page, you started Music Surveillance in mid-2011. What got you into the indie scene in the first place, and how did the project come about? How did you get started taking pictures of local indie bands and documenting the local scene?

I’ve been taking photos since I was in secondary school. Back then, I listened to Commercial Radio a lot, and they would play bands like My Little Airport and Pixeltoy. I got into overseas music around the time I was in Form 2/Form 3. I didn’t really go to shows back then. Then Forever Tarkovsky Club [made up of Ah P from My Little Airport and Ho Shan from Pixeltoy] were playing at a free photo exhibition opening at Shek Kip Mei, and my friend couldn’t go, so I recorded the show and put it online.

street music series

Street Music Series. Photo: Vic Shing/Music Surveillance.

After that, I met Ah P and was introduced to the Street Music Series, and I started going to all these gigs. At first I was mostly shooting videos, but afterwards I was also taking photos – I mostly just do photos now, and post them on Facebook and Instagram. I also use 500px.com. I live in Sai Kung and the uploading speed is very slow – it takes maybe two or three hours – so it’s a bit of a pain to do videos. It also takes a lot of time to edit videos.

I started the Music Surveillance Facebook page because I wanted to use it to promote my YouTube channel, but then when I started taking more pictures it felt natural that I would upload them.

What do you like about going to gigs, and what’s your motivation for voluntarily dedicating so much time and effort to Music Surveillance?

I guess my motivation now is that I know so many people in the scene it feels like I’m just going to shows to hang out with them or catch up, and to listen to new music.

And watching live shows – it’s really “live” in the sense that it’s more alive, and it’s not a one-way communication, you’re not just receiving and not giving back. But when you put on an album and it finishes playing at home, you won’t clap at it. You also see bands grow – sometimes they get worse – or all of a sudden they break up. There are surprises in store, both pleasant and unpleasant ones.

open sesame

Open Sesame! Festival at Chu Ma Leng in August, 2015. Photo: Vic Shing/Music Surveillance.

I’m always taking pictures at the shows – I don’t think I’ve ever been to one where I was just a member of the audience. Although I’ve been to ones that were so terrible I didn’t even feel like staying. I won’t name names…

Why is the page called Music Surveillance?

When I was doing both photos and videos for a show, I used a hand-held camera for the videos, but then you can’t take photos – you can’t do both at the same time. So I would have a set-up whereby there would be two fixed cameras on tripods pointing at the stage to shoot the videos, and it felt like the bands were under surveillance, hence Music Surveillance.

I later realised it was a mistake to name it as such, because – well, people joke that Hongkongers can’t spell English words with more than three syllables, and turns out it’s true that many couldn’t pronounce the name properly or figure out how to spell it when I told them to look the page up on Facebook.

What is your day job? How do you make time to go to shows?

I’m a freelance photographer, so my schedule is flexible.

How regularly do you take pictures at shows, and do you have an estimate of how many gigs you have been to or how many bands you have photographed? The video count on your YouTube Channel is currently at 3259 videos.

I really don’t know. I usually go to shows at least three to four times a week – though less recently, because the scene has been a bit quiet. There weren’t really any local shows lately that felt like a must-go.

Favourite local band? Any new bands you’re particularly excited about?

David Boring – they’re very punk and it’s very good fun to watch them fighting each other on stage, and unlike a lot of other shows the audience won’t be just standing there like statues. I also really like the bands with Sweaty & Cramped – like Phoon and Emptybottles. But they don’t draw in a huge crowd of fans – the last show I was at there were maybe 30, 40 people.

I like YoungQueenz as well – and if we’re talking about older bands, tfvsjs, although it’s unclear what will happen to them from here because one of their members is going back to school.

What have you been listening to lately?

Phoon’s new EP. Also, I was at Temple Street earlier, so I picked up some stupid nonsensical CDs. This one, I got it for HK$18 – it says its “supernormal” music, I have no idea what that is [laughs]. I also went to Tokyo a while back, and when I was at Tower Records I picked up some j-jazz. It sounds a bit post-rock-y.

What do you think of the Hong Kong indie scene, as someone who is on the periphery – not exactly an outsider or a mere member of the audience but not exactly in it either? What changes have you observed over the past years and what do you think is the future of the indie scene?

I feel like the audience really like playing with their phones during performances. People never stand near the stage – I’ve found that there’s a phenomenon whereby if there’s a spotlight at the venue and it hits somewhere outside of the stage, near where the audience is supposed to be standing, then no one would stand under where the spotlight is and the entire crowd will always retreat to behind the light.

The indie circle that goes to shows is shrinking. There’s a group that used to seem to always go, but they’ve shown up less once they started working. Locals now tend to only go to the bigger shows, like those organised by Your Mum. We were wondering why the scene was so quiet this month, and maybe it’s because everyone blew their money on early bird tickets for Clockenflap. But I heard this phenomenon is not unique to Hong Kong – I heard from friends it’s like that in Japan as well.

The crowd is already small, but they don’t cross over to different genres either. They don’t listen to new stuff. For example, the hardcore group would just go to hardcore shows – and then the hip-hop scene is even smaller.

Why do you think the problem exists, and what do you think can be done?

Maybe it’s really that in Hong Kong, the hours people work are just too long; these days, unless it’s the big events like CD releases, people don’t really go anymore. Even if you look at Clockenflap, there’s such a huge turnout because apart from the music, it’s also very much a social event, so even those who aren’t really into music would be there.

A while back, [drummer] Joe Hastings did a series called HKXO, where he would have two Chinese bands and two Western bands at each show – but they didn’t really work out. It just makes you wonder if the audience from the two sides just really can’t appreciate each others’ music, and why the circle is so narrow. It’s true that yes, they’re all “Hong Kong” bands at the end of the day – but would you stay to watch them all? When Bunny Warren was putting them on, people didn’t really stay to listen to the Japanese bands. It’s Listen Up!’s 100th show at the Fringe Club soon, and it feels like there’s less and less people who go. Maybe they all have their own priorities, and I guess we don’t have unlimited time to go to shows.

People are always talking about how you should educate the audience, but if their stances are like that, things will just stay the same. Why don’t Hong Kong bands just take another approach, like touring overseas more? People in Hong Kong with the connections to help bands do so aren’t really doing much. They’re not really going to China or Japan or Taiwan. The market in Hong Kong is small, and it’s quite cheap these days to go to Taiwan anyway.

jabin law

Jabin Law performing at Blue House Music. Photo: Vic Shing/Music Surveillance.

There was a weird article a while back about mainland students in Hong Kong who want to start a live house. But there are already enough live houses, in a single weekend there’s about six or seven shows happening at the same time, more places or shows would just make the audience even more spread out. I would really like to see how they could operate without losing money, with the rental costs. They even said the target audience is students, and talked about how the venue would be a snack shop in the daytime and bar in the evening, but it obviously hasn’t occurred to them that there would be problems like alcohol licences. It’s so stupid.

Best and worst shows you’ve been to?

Well, it’s not the “worst”, but there was a show where only two people turned up; it was a mainland folk music gig organised by Hidden Agenda a few years back. Hongkongers only go to gigs with mainland Chinese bands when they’re famous, like Queensea Big Shark. I guess people in Hong Kong don’t really listen to folk that much either. When the gigs are more niche, no one shows up at all.

Maybe it’s the fact that the Hong Kong and mainland music scene use different promotional platforms; Hong Kong uses Facebook and the mainland doesn’t. HongKongers don’t really get exposed to mainland bands that much, and at the same time Hong Kong bands rarely pay attention to the mainland audience, when they tour they tend to go to Taiwan or to Japan.

grasscamp

Grasscamp, January 2016. Photo: Vic Shing/Music Surveillance.

The best shows were probably OpenSesame! and Grasscamp, there was a lot of nature and both were festivals with mainly local rather than overseas bands. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side – Taiwanese people are envious that we have Clockenflap, with all these impressive bands coming here, but then in Hong Kong we’re also wondering how Taiwan has all these local festivals, like Spring Wave festival, that aren’t running at a loss.

Any favourite gig venues or organisers? People you admire in the scene?

Gig venues – Hidden Agenda, of course. After the difficulties they’ve faced they still haven’t given up, and they were one of the first ones to let me in for free, so I’m thankful.

kung chi-shing

Music veteran Kung Chi-shing. Photo: Vic Shing/Music Surveillance.

People I admire – Ah Kung (Kung Chi-shing). It’s the 7th anniversary of the Street Music Series this Saturday, and if it weren’t for all of his free shows I wouldn’t have met all these people in the scene. Every month, regardless of the ups and downs, he still insists on putting on a show.

Of all the pictures you’ve taken, do you have a favourite one, or one that you feel perhaps is your best work? 

Actually, I feel like no one ever pays attention when you take really nice pictures – on the contrary, when they’re really ugly, then they will spark a discussion. There’s a now a new hashtag in my pictures, the “Vic Shing virus” – coined by the vocalist of ni.ne.mo – and it’s used to describe pictures I took where members of the bands pull weird or unattractive expressions during performances. So now whenever these pictures come up in albums, some friends will comment with the hashtag, saying the Vic Shing virus strikes again.

teen age riot

The Vic Shing virus at work? Local band Teenage Riot performing at the Fringe. Photo: Vic Shing/Music Surveillance.

The story is, many years ago, I put up a picture of Chochukmo’s Jan Curious, and everyone was saying what an unflattering picture it was of him – he actually messaged me angrily and asked me why I posted it. Maybe I can blackmail him in the future! But well, he made that expression, so it’s him – I didn’t do anything. I find the not-so-flattering ones more interesting – there’ll always be people taking pretty pictures, why don’t people post the “failed” pictures? I think they’re more memorable.

[Shing declined a request to post the picture in the article, saying he didn’t want the Chochukmo vocalist to get upset at him again, although he did show it to our reporter during the interview – it’s still out there on the page somewhere, though good luck trying to leaf through his thousands of pictures trying to find it.]

Do you charge bands anything for taking their photos?

The approach I take is “if you want to pay, pay”, but bands usually don’t really pay me anything. If I were to ask for money for a gig, the standard fee would be about HK$1,000 for a show, but organisers have to give a portion of what they make to bands, and to the venues as well – if I charge them, it doesn’t feel conducive to helping the scene. But sometimes, I get paying gigs from organisers who contact me, like Street Music Series. I do get media passes sometimes though, so I get to go to shows for free.

hidden agenda

Queensea Big Shark gig at Hidden Agenda. Photo: Vic Shing/ Music Surveillance.

Do you charge other people who want to use your pictures anything? What licence are they published under?

I allow others it if it’s non-commercial use. When it’s going to be used in a poster or in a book or whatnot, I would ask – but a lot of the time, newspapers have very little respect for copyright and it’s expected that newspapers don’t really pay you anything – and sometimes the reporters who ask are friends of mine, so I feel bad for saying no. Although City Magazine’s Chang Tieh-chih does give remuneration for pictures. It’s a bit sad, really. It’s not as if I’m asking for a lot for the pictures in the first place.

What gear do you use?

I usually use a Sony A7R and Sony A7Rii – but gear’s not that important, what matters is whether you’ve got heart, and to know the limitations of your equipment. I also use a Leica M6 for film photos – then I give the bands back the pictures I developed. I don’t upload and post them onto Facebook – I feel like the analogue world and the digital world should be separated.

In an old interview you said your main challenges are gear and storage – have you solved these problems?

None of those problems are solved. Every three or four months I get maybe one new Patreon. I choose the monthly contribution route, so you could pay a couple of US dollars a month. I guess everyone just wants to just be able to sustain themselves whilst doing something they love. Like I said, I can’t really ask for much from the organisers, so I’m hoping that the audience or band members could all help out a little and together that would amount to something.

the wanch

PostNoBill at the Wanch. Photo: VIc Shing/Music Surveillance.

Any plans to publish a photo collection or hold an exhibition?

Previously, for a platform called Move On, there was a show with my pictures and they found someone to caption them with lyrics, but that was for charity, so there wasn’t really monetary return from it. Probably not for the music pictures – they’re all on the internet anyway, and I don’t think much impact would come out of it. I also need to find out what differentiates me as a photographer first.

Do you have other photography side projects?

Sometimes I take pictures of friends I randomly bump into on the street. I also have a page called Meow Surveillance as well, which is me taking photos of cats, but it’s not that popular.

cat

Vic Shing’s Meow Surveillance Page. Photo: Vic Shing. [awaiting permission]

It’s amazing that you’ve been documenting the live scene all these years – in the future, people would be able to look back at these archives and trace the development of Hong Kong indie. Was this part of your plan from the beginning or something you set out to do?

These are comments that other people have made. I’m not really a culture hipster and I won’t post sentimental captions along with my pictures, I don’t do that. I just do what I do. I don’t really think about whether I’m making any contribution to the scene, and I won’t ever praise myself in that way either. You wouldn’t write a book review or recommendation for your own book, would you? I always feel awkward when people ask me to write a blurb to describe myself.

Interview: Meet Vic Shing, the photographer quietly documenting Hong Kong’s underground music scene