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From buskers to off-key karaoke singers: The public space debate at the heart of Mong Kok’s pedestrian zone

Years ago, Hong Kong’s artists and public space advocates hailed Sai Yeung Choi Street South — the strip of public space that stretched through the heart of Mong Kok — as vibrant grounds for buskers, acrobats, and street photographers.

Later, however, the pedestrian zone was taken over by singing and dancing not unlike that found in China’s public squares, with local media declaring the phenomenon to be the work of mainland “dai mas.” In 2015, the police deployed pepper spray to break up a confrontation between performers and localist groups – who considered the performances a vulgar “mainlandised” tradition – although such clashes have since died down.

Sai Yeung Choi Street South

Sai Yeung Choi Street South in 2013. Photo: In-Media.

Today, the few buskers that remain have been eclipsed by the blaring tones of the karaoke-singing by amateurs who pay the stalls in order to perform. It is unclear whether they are local or mainland, but many of the singers belt Cantonese songs while HK01 has found a group comprising local nightclub singers on the street.

Culture writers and politicians have penned op-eds condemning the performances, deeming them to be overly loud and possessing no artistic merit. Noise complaints steadily climbed and last October, Laneige – a cosmetics shop on the street – erected a huge sound barrier to counter the performances at its front door. However, the Buildings Department ordered it to be taken down.

noise barrier

Photo: Apple Daily.

At Hong Kong Reader Bookstore on a Saturday afternoon in November 2017, on the seventh floor of a nearby building, a shopkeeper turns to close all the windows. But the often-off-key singing blasting from the loudspeakers outside remains as persistent as ever, and a number of patrons resting on the couch or chairs looking for a quiet afternoon of reading have resorted to earphones.

What caused the growing backlash towards performers at Mong Kok’s pedestrian zone on Sai Yeung Choi Street South?

The opening of the pedestrian zone

Street performances in Hong Kong are not a new phenomenon. In the 1920s, martial arts and Cantonese opera performances were popular on Temple Street, and in the 1960s the public space of “Tai Tat Tei” (literally “big piece of land”) in Sheung Wan became known for its dynamic scene of storytelling and puppet shows, often dubbed “civilian entertainment.” In the late 1990s, young people turned the area outside Tsim Sha Tsui’s Cultural Centre into a space for street dancing.

Sai Yeung Choi Street South

Sai Yeung Choi Street South in 2013. Photo: In-Media.

The scene in Mong Kok emerged after Sai Yeung Choi Street was designated as a pedestrian zone in August 2000 in order to ease the traffic during rush hours. Vehicles were banned from the street from 4pm to 10pm Mondays to Saturdays, and noon to 10pm on public holidays. Busking grew popular and soon, street performers each found their corner of the street where they could showcase their art.

But one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Concerns have long been raised over the noise and light pollution in the area and the disruption buskers cause to the local residents. In a 51-page report by the Renaissance Foundation released in 2015, researchers observed that there is often a vicious cycle of “fighting to be the loudest” and territory wars among street performers in Mong Kok. Interviewees believed many buskers did not have a mature concept of what constitutes a healthy street performance environment, and their awareness of self-discipline has not fully developed.

The zone’s opening hours were first cut short in 2010 and 2012. Then, in 2013, the district council of Yau Tsim Mong voted almost unanimously to open the street to traffic on weekdays. At a council meeting, district councillor Wong Shu-ming said that residents of Mong Kok have no means of moving away and some suffer from depression after years of noise disturbance.

Starting early 2014, in accordance with a decision made by the Transport Department, the sounds of guitar strumming were replaced by car honking once again Monday to Friday. Since then, the pedestrian zone is only open from 4pm to 10pm on Saturdays and noon to 10pm on public holidays.

“Everyone’s fighting to be the loudest on the street, blasting their stereo systems, bumping the sound level thrice or four times. Then the residents of course complain, the police come, and it’s a competition of who’s the most aggressive – and finally, the zone is closed off,” Chan Shan-kwan, a guitarist who has performed on the street since 2009, told Sing Tao in 2014.

sai yeung choi street north

Sai Yeung Choi Street South on a weekday evening. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

The decision to cut down the hours of the pedestrian zone resulted in a backlash. Pages cropped up on social media to fight for the rights of buskers, while musicians stress the uniqueness such performances brought to the streets of Mong Kok.

Street performer Tony Lui Yuet-tin even applied for judicial review in 2014, claiming that the government failed to properly carry out an impact assessment in relation to the pedestrians and transport and that the district council’s questionnaires on the issue were not representative. (There have been no reports since on the progress of the case, although HK01 noted last year that it will be dealt with in the upcoming months.)

Street performance regulations

In 2013, then-home affairs secretary Tsang Tak-sing said that there are no laws that prohibit street performances, but those taking place in public spaces must not pose a risk to public safety or cause nuisance or an obstruction to the public.

Under the Summary Offences Ordinance, anyone causing a nuisance by playing musical instruments in public is liable to a fine of HK$500 or to imprisonment for 3 months, if no permit has been obtained from the police.

As such, the police or Food and Environmental Hygiene Department officers often stop street performances, saying they are causing a nuisance or obstruction.

The crackdown became a source of much discontent, with many calling for the protection of rights of street performers. “If the government wants to develop the creative industries, why isn’t it doing more for street performers?” Mr Funny, a street clown, said in an interview in 2010.

Another performer, Banky Yeung of FM Theatre Power – who puts on guerrilla drama shows in Mong Kok – said if there is only room for commercial activities such as broadband companies advertising their services in public, but not street performers, Hong Kong would not be able to cultivate its own unique culture.

In January 2015 busker Wong Chung-sing was handed a fine of HK$1,200 for playing the harmonica and guitar outside a train station. But on appeal that year, a High Court judge overturned the ruling and said that Wong’s right to engage in cultural activities had not been taken into account. 

Article 34 of the Basic Law guarantees residents the “freedom to engage in academic research, literary and artistic creation, and other cultural activities.”

But police could still cite the Noise Control Ordinance, where noise refers to a source of annoyance to anyone to a level that would not be tolerated by a reasonable person.

“In general, street performers, like the public at large, must observe the laws of Hong Kong, including, among others, prohibitions on nuisance, annoyance or obstruction in any public place to people and/or traffic and prohibitions on noise nuisance,” a police spokesperson told HKFP.

The police said that street performers who breach the law could be given “advice” or “verbal warnings” – or face prosecution. They are closely monitoring the situation, they added.

Noise pollution and paid ‘singing’ stalls

The Noise Control Ordinance was once viewed as a way to suppress the city’s creativity, but as more karaoke singing stalls emerged, even public space and street performance advocates are hesitant about the metamorphosis of Sai Yeung Choi Street South into a noisy, chaotic — and most of all, commercial — area.

The noise pollution problem continued despite the cut in the hours of the pedestrian zone. According to figures provided to HKFP by the police, there were 634 noise complaints involving the area in 2014, and in January to October of 2017 the police received 1269 noise complaints. A total of 58 summons were issued over noise complaints in the first ten months of 2017.

sai yeung choi street

Photo: In-Media.

Last year, Chinese University of Hong Kong journalism lecturer Vivian Tam wrote that her students discovered that these “singing stalls” appear to be an organised operation, with groups renting out units in nearby buildings to store equipment. Organisers own powerful amplifiers and occupy advantageous spots on the street.

On December 24, HKFP approached a street stall and asked how one could sign up to sing. We were told that it costed HK$100 to perform four songs, and those who were interested could come by anytime between 2pm to 7pm, after which slots would be allocated to specific singers. Meanwhile, young buskers with guitars have relocated to other spots in Mong Kok, such as outside Langham Place, HKFP observed.

According to Chinese University journalism student Lam Sum-yi, she and her fellow classmates visited the street during a weekend with busking equipment, arriving an hour before the zone opened to obtain a good spot. However, they were then repeatedly told by different groups that there were “regulations” on the street and that they cannot simply show up and perform without paying those who seemingly “run” the street.

Culture critic and writer Tang Siu-wa said she had watched how such a space initially did not exist, then gradually opened and flourished, and finally deteriorated. “Now, when I’m there, [the state of the street] upsets me – I can’t even sit and read quietly in the second-floor bookstores,” she said. “It’s become commercial, they’re not just using the place for self-entertainment – they’re also making money.”

In a commentary published on HK01, Arnold Fang from local music group Sea Island & Ferry said that the middle-aged singers may be acting out their dreams of performing – to the extent that they are willing to pay for it – and that they are merely searching for their own platform. Without condoning or criticising the phenomenon, he said, “The street belongs to the public — as a musician, I have no right to say who or who doesn’t have the right to perform on the streets,” and said there should be more effort to foster music on a community level.

“We’re not famous singers — of course there’ll be instances of off-key singing,” a regular performer known as Mong Kok Kaka told HKFP. “It’s not like you’re paying an entrance fee to see the performances.”

Kaka denied any knowledge that those who wished to perform would have to pay the stalls, but added: “There’s cost in this [operation], and everyone’s just members of the working class — paying rent to store the equipment and finding movers [to take it down to the street]. Normally when you go for karaoke, you have to pay too, isn’t that right?”

mong kok

One of the “singing stalls” in Mong Kok. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

Lo Kin-hei, Vice-chairperson of Democratic Party of Hong Kong, told HKFP that while there are those who advocate that a public space should be free for all to use, regardless of artistic prowess, it remains a fact that public space is limited and certain acts could have a negative impact on others.

“This is not an absolute freedom… it is not just a right, but also a responsibility in that you have to look after other’s needs. So as to whether it’s ‘all art is art’ or ‘everyone’s right to use a public space should be respected’ – I think I have doubts.”

Tang said that there are instances of such singing in parks in Hong Kong as well, but they are different from Sai Yeung Choi South Street in that the latter performers in the pedestrian zone are well-equipped and taking over the space. “The city lacks free entertainment spaces, and public spaces are often regulated. This is a problem, but we do need to differentiate between the people that need our help, and the ones who are abusing it.”

“It’s an organised activity now – they’ve pretty much hijacked the space, she said. “They don’t intend on getting along with you in the space, and they don’t care about how you feel, and the police also does not interfere. I’m not saying that there should be a blanket ban on it, but isn’t it possible to regulate it – say, removing their bulky equipment?”

Lo echoed this point: he said street performers have abused the public’s tolerance and destroyed its ecology, and questioned the police’s double standard of targeting buskers but not such operations profiting from public space. “These days, if you ask someone living in Hong Kong, they have a consensus that you won’t go to Mong Kok unless it’s absolutely necessary – and this is quite tragic. And this tragic situation is caused by these people who are making money and entertaining only themselves.”

Licensing: A way out?

There is currently no official licensing system for street performers; the police could only grant one-off permits for each performance to buskers who wish to avoid prosecution under the Summary Offences Ordinance, but the assessment criteria is unclear. The closest approximations, Varsity reported, are the Open Stage Scheme and West Kowloon Street Performance Scheme; both require auditions and allow buskers to perform in specific locations. The singers taking over Mong Kok are not regulated as such.

In 2013, Home Affairs secretary Tsang said that although a licensing system could ensure performance standards, it would impose constraints on street performances and prohibit those without licences from performing. Its introduction is “subjected to further study,” he said.

mr wally

Japanese busker Mr Wally. Photo: In-Media.

Renaissance Foundation’s report gave concrete recommendations for an implementation of a licensing scheme, such as the formation of a committee for approving such licences and suggested criteria – for example, safety and originality of performance — to be taken into account. However, the group was of the opinion that the system should not mean buskers without licences are banned from performing on the streets; rather, it is a mechanism providing a set of regulations so as to give protection to buskers and resolve conflicts, by say, giving priority to licence holders over other street performers.

“There needs to be a consensus in the community and trust in the government,” Tang said, with different stakeholders and the public having their say in this. This would include the voices of the residents, but the primary concern is how the public space could function in an organised and reasonable manner, she added.

Lo, on the other hand, said he did not have trust in a selection system: “It’s very difficult, to come up with a concrete and objective way of judging this.” He admits that he did not have a solution; while closing off the pedestrian zone may make life for the residents easier, it’s a mutually destructive plan for both kinds of performers, he said.

Since self-discipline has not worked, Lo said that if he were a district councillor of the district, he would at least ensure everyone had an equal chance of applying to use the platform.“In a way, the Mong Kok pedestrian zone gives us some insight into freedoms from a political philosophy perspective. When given freedom in public space or other arenas, one has to be in a responsible manner – otherwise it could be dangerous and there would be terrible consequences,” Lo said.

For now, until the government steps in to rectify the situation, the pedestrian zone will remain as it is – waves of karaoke singing overriding each other, engulfing residents and shoppers.

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From buskers to off-key karaoke singers: The public space debate at the heart of Mong Kok’s pedestrian zone