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A “No-Venue Underground”: Making Experimental Music Around Hong Kong’s Lack of Performance Spaces

Chapter

Abstract

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.

I spend ten minutes circling around the block, following the directions provided by Google Maps, only to end up realizing that there is no way of crossing the six lanes of Hing Fong Road; I memorize the address of CIA and put my smartphone back in my pocket: Unit 7, 8th floor, Block B, Wah Tat Industrial Centre, 8–10 Wah Sing Street. I head back to the station and walk up the overpass, through an elevated courtyard, over another overpass, down an escalator, and eventually venture into an alleyway between two industrial buildings; I end up in a maze of streets without shops, cars, or pedestrians—only container trucks come in and out of garage doors and loading ramps (Image 7.1). Once I find the Wah Tat Industrial Centre (its name conveniently spelled both in Chinese characters and English), I still have to figure out how to reach Block B, and how to get to the eighth floor. “Not with that,” a security guard tells me as I approach a rusted sliding metal door, “that elevator is for cargo. People go in that other one.” Stepping out of the elevator into a damp corridor lit by fluorescent lights, the only signal helping me find the entrance of CIA is the bass frequency rumbling through the concrete architecture: I slide another heavy metal door open, and I am greeted by Dennis and the other musicians doing their sound-check and preparing for the show in a large whitewashed room with no windows.
Image 7.1

Google Street View of the industrial buildings on Wah Sing Street, where art gallery and performance venue CIA (Cultural Industries Association) was located. (Source: Google Maps, June 2011)

A few weeks later, my Shanghainese friend Huang Lei tells me he has been invited to perform in Hong Kong and asks me if I can help him organize another show in the city. I get in touch with Dennis once more, and he kindly agrees to put together an event for Huang Lei (stage name Da Xiao) under his NOISE to SIGNAL series. We coordinate the details of the event through Facebook messages, and I help him design a flyer using a photo I took around Kowloon (Image 7.2). This time the venue is Strategic Sounds, another windowless space located on the 10th floor of the High Win Factory Building in Kwun Tong district, an industrial area on the East side of the Kowloon peninsula. After individual performances, Huang Lei, Dennis, and I end up performing an improvised set together, a jumbled 20-minute mish-mash of prepared guitar, crackling electronics and distorted feedback echoing down the grimy ventilation shaft right outside the venue. An attentive audience of around 15 people sits on the floor or stands against the walls at the back of the room, occasionally taking pictures or videos; when the final collaborative improvisation is over, some audience members walk up to Huang Lei to inquire about the touch-sensitive circuit board prosthetics he has used as DIY instruments.
Image 7.2

The flyer for the NOISE to SIGNAL 0.08: Lost in Transmission event, designed by the author and Dennis Wong in October 2012

Throughout the following year, I would be generously invited to play a few more shows at both Strategic Sounds and CIA, meeting many of the experimental musicians active in the city around 2013. CIA would even receive some media attention, being recognized as one of the city’s “hottest venues” that privileged quality of their bookings over revenue (Shamdasani 2013), but even this did not contribute to their sustainability. One after the other, both venues closed down or stopped organizing performances under the pressure of increasing rents and the challenges of sustaining an independent event schedule in Hong Kong—a demanding enterprise even considering the relatively more affordable rental prices of vacant units in industrial buildings. Of the eight venues in which I had the pleasure to play experimental music during my four years in Hong Kong, seven were located in industrial buildings. Besides CIA and Strategic Sounds, they ranged from the Dimension+ Lab (a small makerspace attached to an artist studio) and Floating Projects (an art production site) to the HKICC Lee Shau-kee School of Creativity (a secondary school with a creative industry focus) and Hidden Agenda (a long-standing live house very well known among local independent music audiences). During these years, I could also visit the same venues and enjoy live performances by some of my favorite musicians and bands including Acid Mothers Temple, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Hijokaidan and Laibach, which included Hong Kong in their international tours thanks to the effort of some of the same musicians and organizers I was hanging out with in former factory premises (Image 7.3).
Image 7.3

The author improvising with Shanghai-based musician Huang Lei (as 大小) and local organizer Dennis Wong (as Sin:Ned) at Strategic Sounds, Hong Kong, November 2012. (Photo by KWC)

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).

The first Sound-On-Site show organized by booking agency Twenty Alpha1 and record label Re-Records at ACO (Art & Culture Outreach) at the end of January 2015—aptly titled “Space Oddity #1: From Below”—is perhaps the starkest example of Hong Kong’s experimental musicians’ hijacking of urban spaces for their performances. Rather than playing in the small bookstore located on the 14th floor of the Foo Tak Building, the three musicians billed for this event decide to set up their equipment on different landings of the building’s stairwell: laptops on small stools, amplifiers turned on their side to fit the constraining spaces, cables dangling between floors, performance areas sealed off by improvised signage (Image 7.4). Puzzled audience members move up and down the stairs, trying to figure out how to reach the floor where sounds are coming from, or sit on the concrete steps listening to the droning frequencies reverberating through the building. For musicians Sin:Ned, KWC and e:ch, each performing eclectic sets for guitar, processed voice and electronics, the architectural structure becomes an essential component of musicking and audience engagement. During a break between sets, a Chinese friend who is visiting Hong Kong for a few days comments that, in terms of scale and spatial politics, this performance arrangement reminds him of experimental music shows in his own city: “But whereas musicians in Beijing are taking back hutong alleyways and old housing, here in Hong Kong it seems to be all about industrial architecture.”
Image 7.4

“Performance area” signage on a mezzanine of the ACO stairwell delimiting KWC’s live set during the Sound-On-Site: Space Oddity #1: From Below show, January 2015

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.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    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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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2021

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of BergenBergenNorway

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