At 2am on the night of Mid-Autumn Festival, three visual arts graduates and a graphic designer walked into a deserted skate park underneath a highway in the New Territories. With the street lights long since extinguished, there was a surreal sense of isolation, away from the lanterns and melted wax that littered the rest of Hong Kong that night. The quartet threw their arms out and stretched, in awe of the empty public space, before sitting down in an intimate circle on the concrete floor.
Collectively, they are known as murmur, an independent shoegaze-turned-experimental band formed in 2013. They were one of six acts who had just played in a festive “guerrilla show” – an unlicensed street performance held with minimal publicity – beneath the same section of the highway. The heat was sweltering, the power generator failed three times that night, and the nearest convenience store was a half-hour walk away. But to the surprise of the bands, almost a hundred fans made the trek, accompanied by no police.
Sitting down in the skate park, murmur’s guitarist Kit commented that the night’s guerrilla show represented the very essence of Hong Kong’s underground music scene. The event was organised by volunteers, and each band had donated equipment for collective use.
“The show tonight emerged organically, made possible by people who just wanted it to happen,” he said. The indie scene was a cultural movement that arose “bottom-up”, from society, rather than “top-down, [whereby] the mainstream media tries to define culture on behalf of Hongkongers, telling people ‘this is culture’”.
With little media coverage and a paucity of performance venues, however, the scene is nearly invisible to the rest of Hong Kong, sometimes disparagingly called a “cultural desert”. For the typical secondary school student raised on classical music or Cantopop, the existence of a small but thriving indie music subculture in the city might be very hard to imagine.
So where did these bands and fans come from?
From the mainstream to the underground
Since the 1970s, Hong Kong’s mainstream music scene has been dominated by Cantopop, which refers less to the style of music than the language in which it is sung. In his doctoral thesis, the late lyricist Wong Jim wrote that there was “discrimination” against Cantonese – as opposed to English or Mandarin – songs, until a local Hongkonger identity began to develop, against the backdrop of chaos on the mainland.
Yet veteran music critic Yuen Chi-chung points out that one of the most important features of popular music in the western world – bands – developed along a different trajectory in Hong Kong. While there is constant interest in individual singers, “bands are sometimes seen as ‘not trendy’ by the mainstream media and record labels, and are not promoted… there is a discontinuity between each generation of bands that make it into the mainstream.”
“Even in the 1960s there was a band scene, but that was broken off. In the 1980s a new generation of mainstream groups [like Beyond] emerged… now, a new wave of bands [like Mr. and Supper Moment] have gained coverage, but the only band whose music really survived from the 1980s is Beyond.”
While there is constant interest in up-and-coming groups in the western world, the mainstream band scene exists only intermittently in Hong Kong. Yuen laments that mainstream record labels in the city are not supportive of the concept of bands. “Most labels think it’s enough to sign only one band.”
Turning to the topic of Hong Kong’s underground bands, Yuen says that they differ from their mainstream counterparts in terms of their DIY ethic.
Established in 1979, pioneers Blackbird (黑鳥), with their overtly political lyrics, produced and circulated their own cassette tapes. They influenced later, more commercially successful bands, like Beyond, to produce their own recordings before they were signed.
There is now a diverse variety of independent-label and unsigned musicians in Hong Kong, playing every genre from punk to math rock. Yuen does not think that any particular style of music dominates the scene. “People have the attitude of not following any trends… otherwise they wouldn’t play in the underground scene in the first place.”
But with the lack of media coverage, these independent groups “are living in a different world” to the mainstream band scene, says Yuen.
As a result, many of Hong Kong’s young indie music fans in their 20s initially learned to appreciate overseas rather than local bands, and caught their first glimpse of non-mainstream music by accident.
Damien, a dream-pop fan and regular concert-goer, watched the US bands of his era on MTV from the age of 13, before YouTube existed. Sometimes, he would venture to popular record store HMV, where a glittery aisle was devoted to “new recommendations”. Fans could preview hit albums stacked on the shelves through large black headphones before buying the CDs.
But Damien stressed that even bands like Linkin Park, popular overseas, were relatively unknown among local school students. “I was probably the only one in my class. It was lonely… there was nobody to talk to about music, but I stuck with them for a very pure reason… I liked them.”
Examples of more Hong Kong-centric platforms include concert organisers The Underground, and music critic Yuen’s own Music Colony Bi-Weekly, which existed as a hard-copy magazine in the 1990s, and as a website in the 2000s. Reading Yuen’s reviews, as well as the blog of Taiwanese writer Chen Te-cheng, proved to be the turning point for Damien. His tastes shifted from pop-punk to lower-profile dream-pop bands.
Likewise, NKCH, an administrator for the indie music page Zenegeist, listened to Cantopop at school until friends studying overseas shared a few songs from 1990s UK giants Oasis and Blur. Going online, he discovered a thread on the Golden forum – the cradle of Hong Kong’s Internet culture – titled “What album are you listening to at this moment?”
Clicking into the thread today – in its 58th edition due to the sheer number of posts – the latest albums mentioned are from Glasgow post-rockers Mogwai, Berlin goth group Bleib Modern, and Los Angeles dream-pop songwriter Greta Morgan. These diverse recommendations became the foundation of NKCH’s musical education.
Asked whether “outsiders”, such as bullied teenagers and the LGBT community, were more likely to explore indie music, NKCH points out that the message of Hong Kong’s mainstream pop songs “almost always revolve around petty love stories… they never touch upon more socially relevant topics.”
It was edging towards 3am. Final act David Boring had completed their raucous set, but shadowy figures were still rave-dancing to late night DJs at the Mid-Autumn “guerrilla show”. Next door in the skate park, the murmur quartet was tranquil, sitting cross-legged. Lead singer Blythe began to tell the story of how her band came to life, at Baptist University’s Academy of Visual Arts. It was there that she met guitarist Kit and bassist Julvian.
“It was at an art studio reserved for year three students. We played guitar there, trying to brew some songs. We then wanted to see how things would sound as a full band… a friend said he knew a girl who played the drums: Monsha. We started practicing at her dad’s band room in Kwun Tong.”
“Our first show was acoustic, at the opening of a shop owned by a friend. It’s hard to imagine now, but it worked back then because our songs were very shoegazey. It was the first and last time we were to play acoustic… our first actual electric gig was at [underground club] XXX.”
In Hong Kong, murmur is just one of many bands whose members met other teenagers with eccentric music tastes for the first time in university. Students across the city organised their own band societies and annual performances. Formed in 2009, hardcore four-piece band The Priceless Boat played their first show at Lingnan University, before moving on to concerts held at community centres by youth associations.
Their beginnings in the live scene were rocky, recalled guitarist Jim. At one performance, “between two songs, when it was all quiet, we heard somebody in the audience laugh and say ‘oh, so this is heavy metal’… in a mocking way. It was a bit hurtful.”
But dream-pop fan Damien believes that grassroots-level changes have been taking place in Hong Kong’s music scene in recent years, with the emergence of concert promoters such as Songs for Children in 2009 and Your Mum in 2012. While they mostly worked to bring overseas bands to Hong Kong, “organising shows helps to gather like-minded people… as an indie music fan, these are exciting times.”
“I remember when I went to [annual music festival] Clockenflap in my first year of university, none of my friends knew about it. Then the following year in 2012, suddenly it was huge, because of advertisements targeted at the public, like on the MTR… it’s also easier to find out about concerts now thanks to Facebook, whereas in the past you had to go to a record store and read a magazine.”
Music page administrator NKCH agrees that crowds at alternative music events have slowly grown, but also attributes the changes to the failings of mainstream Cantopop. “Due to the declining quality of Cantopop music, people are turning not only to the underground scene, but also to Korean and Japanese pop.”
“At the same time, significant anti-government voices can thrive in the city’s indie music scene, while they are not accepted at all in the mainstream.” In June, pro-democracy Cantopop singer Denise Ho Wan-see saw her concert organised by cosmetic giant Lancôme cancelled, after mainland Chinese Internet users threatened a boycott of the brand.
Perhaps the main sources of pressure on Hong Kong’s underground music scene today lie outside of the culture industry, and in the city’s eternal quest for land and space. Following Hong Kong’s de-industrialisation in the 1980s, artists and musicians have moved into factory buildings in districts such as Kwun Tong, creating iconic venues such as Hidden Agenda. But faced with rising rents and outdated laws on land use, some occupants are finding it increasingly difficult to survive.
“Since the beginning of time, culture has been something that originates from the grassroots,” explained murmur guitarist Kit. “Rock and roll in the 1950s, punk in the 1970s, and all the other subcultures emerged as a response to the society and politics of the time.”
“Our music is likewise a reaction to something, whether it be personal emotions, society, or politics in Hong Kong,” continued Blythe. “So maybe that’s why our new performances sound more violent [than the initial shoegaze songs]… but still, we’re not deliberately aiming for any specific new sound as a method of expression.”
“Nothing is truly new anymore anyway. If it weren’t for our predecessors making art in their own ways before we did, we wouldn’t be here. We have reference points and a stream of things behind us. We simply add a thin layer onto the art that already exists.”