A “No-Venue Underground”: Making Experimental Music Around Hong Kong’s Lack of Performance Spaces
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This chapter draws on the author’s experience as a musician in Hong Kong between 2012 and 2016 to describe how an experimental music scene is sustained in the city in spite of its lack of performance spaces. By examining the use of industrial blocks and the temporary nature of many of the events organized by local musicians, the author argues that the peculiar socio-political context of Hong Kong has shaped a paradoxical “no-venue underground” sustained by ongoing efforts of spatial hijacking and a commitment to digital mediation, which in turn influence the aesthetics of a small but resilient community of experimental musicians.
In a city drowning in the saccharine ballads and slick boybands of Cantopop, the hunt for Hong Kong’s raw and vital sounds involves peering beneath its skin to find its hidden pathways and secret spaces. (Margree 2013)
Unit 7, 8th floor, Block B, Wah Tat Industrial Centre, 8–10 Wah Sing Street, Kwai Hing, Kowloon, Hong Kong
It is October 10th, 2012. I have been living in Hong Kong for less than two months, and Dennis Wong—one of the few local organizers whom fellow experimental musicians from Shanghai suggested me to get in touch with—is waiting for me to arrive at the performance venue and do my sound-check. A few weeks before, Dennis sent me a Facebook message asking if I wanted to play a show at a newly opened local venue called CIA, an acronym standing for “Cultural Industries Association” which of course also plays upon a certain ring of underground secrecy. “Sure, when and where?”, I replied. Dennis gave me an address and asked me if I needed anything else besides a guitar amplifier. I said I did not, even though I had no idea of what I was going to play, and how. A few days later I made my first trip to the Kowloon branch of Tom Lee, a large music gear retailer with stores across Hong Kong, and I bought a couple of guitar cables and a compressor effect pedal that I thought I would need for my set. Now I am standing outside the Kwai Hing MTR station (the closest to the venue, according to Google Maps) with my hollow-body guitar and a heavy backpack full of effect pedals, and I am trying to find my bearings via GPS. The air is still and humid, although the weather is less stifling than the past summer. I start walking, but there are not many useful reference points around the station: a convenience store, a small noodle restaurant, and an overpass leading to the entrance of a shopping mall. Behind my back, a dense cluster of residential towers and public housing estates. In front of me, a wall of industrial buildings, the overpass disappearing into a narrow crevice between two of them.
Hijacking the City
The two reasons pushing Hong Kong’s experimental musicians to find spaces in the post-industrial peripheries of the city are the famed expensiveness of Hong Kong’s real estate and the lack of suitable and welcoming performance venues in more central areas of the city. The pubs and clubs hosting live music in central Kowloon and Hong Kong Island predominantly feature DJs and cover bands catering to the commercial audiences they rely upon, while larger live houses like Hidden Agenda and The Vine sustained themselves by booking more mainstream bands and events. Given the scarcity of spaces like garages, squats, and cellars, and constrained by the diminutive size of residential units, Hong Kong’s experimental musicians turn to the 1400 industrial buildings hollowed out by the recent delocalization of factories that local visual artists and creative enterprises have pioneeringly explored (Zuser 2015). The move towards these spaces is facilitated by the fact that experimental music worldwide has embraced industrial buildings and warehouses as legitimate—or even preferable—venues for live performances. As Caleb Stuart notes, the stripped-down nature of these spaces and the absence of a proper stage bring musicians closer to their audiences and allow them to experiment with the “aural performative,” or the malleable spatial ambience offered by industrial architecture (2003, pp. 62–63). But regardless of the aesthetic advantages offered by industrial buildings, unreliable rental agreements and the uncertain legal status of these spaces leave musicians and organizers in a state of “reluctant nomadism” (Charrieras et al. 2018, p. 137).
As hinted at by the fleeting existence of venues like Strategic Sounds and CIA, industrial spaces in Hong Kong offer experimental musicians a temporary and precarious performance site at best. Even Hidden Agenda, which predominantly booked indie, post-rock, hardcore, punk and metal bands, has had a decade-long history marked by four relocations before re-opening once again under the name This Town Needs in 2018 and eventually shutting down in February 2020 because of the COVID-19 lockdown. Tobias Zuser has extensively tracked the venue’s precarious existence, evidencing how Hidden Agenda has been repeatedly squeezed out of its premises by changes in property ownership, urban revitalization projects, as well as legal actions against its use of industrial space (2015, p. 228). Hidden Agenda’s exemplary ambiguity as an established yet secluded venue has allowed it to remain, for nearly ten years, a pivotal “space of vernacular creativity” (Evans 2010) for communities of musicians and audiences capable of rooting around the challenges posed by urban redevelopment and private interests. Profoundly shaped by Hong Kong’s zoning regulations that the venue itself challenges with its existence (Zuser 2015, p. 236), Hidden Agenda had also managed to avoid challenges commonly faced by small-scale music venues in urban areas such as noise complaints (Parkinson et al. 2015). Elaine. J. Ho highlights how similar practices of “spatial hijacking” are common across artist communities in Hong Kong, allowing a partial and temporary confrontation with the pervasive privatization of city spaces (2015, p. 192).
An Underground Without Ground
Adam Frampton, Jonathan Solomon, and Clara Wong have provocatively defined Hong Kong as a “city without ground” in both physical and cultural terms—a topological uniqueness that distorts spatial hierarchy into a continuous network of liminal environments riddled by inequalities (2012). It is somehow ironically appropriate that, in this city without ground, experimental musicians find themselves relegated to a precarious underground actively carved out of fleeting spaces strewn across the upper floors of post-industrial peripheries. These precarious venues appear and disappear following the inexorable inflation of property prices and the investment decisions of landlords, leaving local show organizers to work in the present tense with whatever space is available at the moment. If the spaces established by visual artists since the early 1990s have transformed Hong Kong’s “proverbial cultural desert” (Smith 2015) into a shifting “middleground” of creative projects, private companies, and educational institutions (Charrieras et al. 2018, p. 134), the underground of experimental music remains largely constrained by the lack of affordable spaces for vernacular creativity and the precariousness of the few venues in activity. Predominantly sustained by personal passions cultivated in the spare time squeezed out of full-time jobs and freelance careers, Hong Kong’s experimental music scene finds its most reliable spaces on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where shows are organized, promoted, documented, and thus inscribed on the city’s cultural scene.
In the year 2000, responding to a broader discussion around the current state of experimental music performance and consumption, musician and writer Rob Hayler coined the term “no-audience underground” to describe the scene of micro-labels and gigs that he found himself become part of in the UK (Hayler 2015). The idea of a no-audience underground has caught up in music criticism and is often used to describe underground scenes in which performers and organizers also double as audiences, promoters, and critics, such as the noise scene in Western Russia (Marshall 2013) or the independent music scene in Malaysia (Khaliq 2016). Given the usual attendance of local performances, Hong Kong’s experimental music scene could be similarly characterized as a no-audience underground—but in fact, as Paul Margree has discovered by interviewing to local musicians, the lack of performance venues trumps, in urgency, the scarcity of interested attendees (2013). Before even being a “no-audience underground,” Hong Kong experimental musicians orchestrate a “no-venue underground” out of precarious venues and nomadic event series. In the archetypal city without ground, experimental music reverberates through the post-industrial remnants of the city’s manufacturing heydays, and its aesthetics are inflected by the practices of spatial hijacking that make this underground scene possible.
Twenty Alpha has since then also become a venue hosting intermedia art and experimental electronic music performances (see Tse in this volume).
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