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Anatomy of a Subculture Part II: ‘Factory culture’ and the survival of indie music in Hong Kong

After two minutes of rather unsettling noises of grumbling and squeaking, the old freight elevator landed with a thud on the ground floor of the industrial tower, built in the 1960s. From inside the dilapidated elevator, a young man pulled open the rusty scissor gates, while three others stood back, carrying guitar cases over their shoulders.

Outside, a fifth, unfamiliar face awaited them.

“Hey there, you guys playing music upstairs?” he asked.

Kwun Tong industrial building. Photo: Elson Tong

Kwun Tong industrial building. Photo: Elson Tong.

“No, we rent a storage room.”

“I see,” he mumbled, keeping his eyes menacingly at the quartet as they brushed pass. The plain-clothes police officer knew exactly what the four men were doing – violating antiquated regulations on the use of industrial buildings – but ultimately, it would be too troublesome for his department to do anything about it.

The sequence above could be the iconic opening scene of a hypothetical film on Hong Kong’s indie music subculture, according to lead singer Enson of local hardcore band The Priceless Boat. The quartet rents a small unit as a band practice room in the gloomy post-industrial district of Kwun Tong. They go there once or twice a week, arriving after work and leaving at around 12am.

“There’s no way of predicting when the cops come knocking,” says guitarist Jim. “Sometimes they are downstairs, other times they come up. They are mostly plain-clothes policemen. When the issue [of industrial buildings] receives coverage on the news, they come more frequently, like after the Ngau Tau Kok fire in June. But most of the time the government is too lazy and turns a blind eye.”

Land leases for factory buildings typically specify that units must be used for industrial or storage purposes only. According to the Town Planning Board, “industrial use” is mainly defined as “the manufacture, alteration, cleansing, repairing, ornamenting, finishing, adaptation for sale, breaking up, demolishing or transformation of goods and materials”.

This definition was adopted from the Factories and Industrial Undertaking Ordinance, which was first enacted in 1955. But sixty years later, the reality inside Hong Kong’s industrial buildings is a flourishing arts scene.

The Priceless Boat. Photo: The Priceless Boat via Facebook.

The Priceless Boat. Photo: The Priceless Boat via Facebook.

“The government uses 50 or 60-year-old regulations to catch us out as musicians, but actually nobody in this building uses the rooms for industrial purposes,” claims Enson.

Revitalisation or strangulation?

After Hong Kong’s light industrial sector moved north to the Pearl River Delta region in the 1980s, a range of occupants from private restaurants to home-seekers began to rent cheaper factory units in districts such as Kwun Tong. Occupants include a large number of arts, design and publishing groups, which constituted as many as 4.5 percent of all commercial organisations in Kowloon East, according to a 2011 survey by the Planning Department.

But a series of government initiatives has changed this environment. In 2010, the Lands Department implemented the Revitalisation of Factory Buildings scheme, which simplified procedures for owners of factory units to convert them for commercial use, via changes to land leasing contracts. Critics blamed the initiative for triggering a wave of rent hikes. Two years later, the Development Bureau set up the Energising Kowloon East Office, tasked with transforming the area into a “second central business district for Hong Kong”.

From the Factories, a multimedia project by Hong Kong Baptist University Associate Professor Anson Mak Hoi-shan, profiled 25 arts and design groups working in Kwun Tong’s industrial buildings. According to its website, eight of the groups have moved out since the launch of the project in 2014.

“The government responds to public inquiries through a discourse of developmentalism… but who shoulders the costs of development? And who benefits from it?” reads the project’s introductory leaflet.

Cover of From the Factories' 2014 publication.

Cover of From the Factories’ 2014 publication.

The dual factors of land use violations and increasing rents are serious sources of pressure for factory-based musicians in Hong Kong. Iconic live venue Hidden Agenda was forced to close on October 10, returning the property to its landlord after receiving three warning letters from the Lands Department.

Apart from factory buildings, youth centres (such as Sai Wan Ho’s Hang Out), bars (Lan Kwai Fong’s Orange Peel) and even commercial buildings (Causeway Bay’s Focal Fair) now serve as live houses for Hong Kong’s indie music scene. “But none compare to Hidden Agenda in terms of culture and atmosphere” says vocalist Enson of The Priceless Boat. “Without Hidden Agenda, we are GG-ed [dead].”

Kit, guitarist of experimental band murmur, is furious about the issue, and believes that the pressures faced by Hong Kong musicians are even greater than those faced by their counterparts in mainland China. “In China, some music is banned from the mainstream, but funnily enough, it’s so large, so you can go anywhere to form a band. [Chinese alternative rock group] Carsick Cars has a song called The Square (廣場), and it’s about the Tiananmen Square Massacre.”

“In Hong Kong, indie bands like [rap group] LMF can openly criticise the government… but the only place we can play is in factories, and the government takes that away. The pressure here is much more stifling… they crack down on the birthplace of the indie music scene, cutting you off from the roots.”

Live house Hidden Agenda, located inside a Kwun Tong factory. Photo: Elson Tong

Hidden Agenda fundraising jumble sale. Photo: Elson Tong.

Hong Kong’s indie music scene, therefore, finds itself unwittingly dragged into land politics. In January 2013, the Energising Kowloon East Office began to organise “Fly the Flyover”, a series of cultural events underneath a highway in Kwun Tong. The concert event, however, was cancelled after 20 local bands collectively staged a boycott.

Kit laments that the artistic communities in industrial buildings are not united in voicing their concerns. “I feel like 90 percent of the people [calling for the right to stay in factory buildings] are musicians, but the crackdown affects everyone.”

“I work in an arts studio in a factory, next door is a frozen meat unit. [murmur drummer] Monsha’s graphic design studio is also in an industrial building. Small businesses use the units as offices. We can’t afford to divide ourselves into different circles anymore.”

Political activism?

While Hong Kong’s underground musicians have been vocal defenders of their own rights, it would be an exaggeration to describe the scene as a political force.

The Priceless Boat does not consider itself as a “political band”, although guitarist Jim emphasises that “all of [them] really care about what is happening”. Some of their songs – such as Regret (遺恨) and Queen’s Pier (皇后碼頭; a cover of local hardcore pioneers King Ly Chee) – were inspired by the resistance against the erosion of Hong Kong’s culture and society.

“We played in several ‘guerrilla shows’ [unlicensed street concerts] in the past, including one outside the old Legislative Council building, and one in Mong Kok during the anti-National Education protests of 2012. Back then the police didn’t stop us… but obviously, times have changed,” recalls Jim.

All four members of The Priceless Boat speak fondly of the small contingent of bands in Hong Kong who are more outspoken, in particular indie rockers Wondergarl (神奇膠). Known for strongly emphasising its local roots, Wondergarl even hosted a regular radio show on localist online media outlet Passion Times, introducing the city’s underground music to listeners.

But Jim believes that bands like Wondergarl are an exception. “I personally feel that there were more explicitly political bands in the past. Musicians have been more subdued these days, because Hong Kong has become more politically fragmented. It’s very easy to say something that offends somebody.”

Wondergarl. Photo: Apple Daily.

Wondergarl. Photo: Apple Daily.

Jim is not referring to traditional divisions between the pro-Beijing and the pro-democracy camps. “[Even within the opposition], you now have leftists, pro-independence activists, city-state activists… it’s much harder to be a political band now.”

In Hong Kong, there is no equivalent of Taiwan’s Inland Rock (內地搖滾), an annual pro-independence music festival held under the slogan “Taiwan’s mainland is Nantou [and not China]”. Nantou is the only landlocked county on the island.

“But this didn’t stop us from going on stage during one show [before September’s Legislative Council elections] and telling the audience that ‘we are not voting for this or that party’. If you don’t agree… then whatever.”

***

In the weeks leading up to Hidden Agenda’s closure, a collection of photographs from over the years were hung in an exhibition – Hello Stranger – on the tattered walls. They featured musicians, fans, and others who frequented the iconic factory venue that refused to kowtow to Hong Kong’s unofficial status as a “cultural desert”.

Soon, the stage will be taken down, the amplifiers and lamps will be removed, and the unit will be empty once again.

Hidden Agenda photo exhibition. Photo: Karen Cheung.

Hidden Agenda photo exhibition. Photo: Karen Cheung.

Meanwhile, at his band practice room nearby, Jim reflected upon his seven years’ playing in Hong Kong’s underground music scene. “If I were to leave the scene today, the aspect that I’ll miss the most is Kwun Tong. Kwun Tong is the place where there are the most bands, much more than other industrial areas like Tsuen Wan or Fo Tan. It’s got that special cultural atmosphere.”

These days, Kwun Tong is not only famous for its artists, studios and concert venues. The district has also become a fierce battleground where Hong Kong’s creative community confronts other stakeholders in the city’s toxic politics of land and space.

And when it reopens at the end of 2016, Hidden Agenda’s new venue will show its resilience by still being located in Kwun Tong.

HKFP Writer

Elson Tong

Elson Tong

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.

Anatomy of a Subculture Part II: 'Factory culture' and the survival of indie music in Hong Kong