Nov 24, 2011|
Last month, a collective cheer arose over Hong Kong’s interwebs as word spread of the return of Clockenflap, an upstart music and arts festival. After what felt like an uncertain hiatus, Clockenflap is back in full force as it was intended—an open air affair promising a blitz of international, local and regional music and multimedia attractions. When registration opened for the free two-day event at the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade, the overwhelming surge of requests blocked the organizers’ server from sending scores of confirmation emails.
Clearly, an outdoor music festival that Hongkongers can call their own has been a long time coming. With nothing near the stature and stability of Britain’s Glastonbury, Japan’s Fuji Rock or California’s Coachella, “Asia’s World City” has not regularly offered its audiophiles the kind of large-scale event that’s a yearly ritual for music lovers in many other parts of the world. Last year, while outdoor rock showcases were springing up in mainland China at an astounding rate, Hongkongers found out that Clockenflap, which had been a hit for two years running, would not take place as expected.
There are several factors that make Hong Kong a difficult place to stage an alfresco alternative music festival. One huge barrier is a lack of space approved for outdoor music events, but the bigger issue is noise. Cyberport hosted Clockenflap in 2008 and 2009 before concerns about noise levels drove festival founders Mike Hill, Jay Forster and Justin Sweeting to re-consider their venue options. “One idea was to do an acoustic, unplugged festival,” says Forster. “But we realized that wasn’t really what Hong Kong needs.” Clockenflap had come about to fill a gap in the music landscape left by the Rockit Festival, which was held from 2003-2006 in Victoria Park before moving to Macau (and indoors).
Clockenflap technically did happen once between 2009 and now, albeit on a much smaller scale than hoped. As they addressed various constraints in securing a new outdoor venue, the founding trio enacted The Clockenflap Society of Clockenflap, granting members-only access to a multi-story warehouse event in November 2010 that was headlined by The Charlatans from the UK. The well-attended show “was basically just a stopgap,” says Forster, “to have an annual event of some kind in line with what Clockenflap is about.” Keeping the brand alive helped them continue to grow their reputation while they forged ahead in securing West Kowloon for this December. “The Charlatans were extremely positive about the event we did, and these kinds of things feed back to the scene [in the UK],” says Hill.
On a smaller scale, putting on an indoor rock show, especially featuring artists from overseas, presents another unique set of circumstances. Without enough acts coming through to support smaller-scale dedicated venues for up-and-coming bands (which are found in most major cities), promoters often stage bands in non-traditional spaces that may seem quirky or makeshift at first. Grappa’s Cellar, an Italian restaurant in the basement of Jardine House, has hosted North American groups OK Go, the Handsome Furs and Ratatat. Hang Out at Youth Outreach Centre in Sai Wan Ho, where New York’s Asobi Seksu and Beijing’s P.K. 14 have rocked out, does not include that critical staple of gig culture: a bar. In fact, alcohol is not permitted on the premises.
While these multi-purpose venues are cooperative and help to encourage a live scene, they may not have the proper equipment or resources to support several bands in one night. “If venues do have their own [equipment], it’s never really that good because it has rarely, or in some cases never, been played,” explains Jon Lee, a musician and the creative director of ThisMusicStudio. “Sometimes the provided sound technicians are unqualified to handle full band settings, as they are DJ or club sound guys.” This burdens promoters with more responsibilities and costs, meaning that smaller events without sponsors can usually only hope to break even at day’s end.
This year, Clockenflap is in a similar financial boat, hoping to recoup most of their costs through the sale of food and beverage after finding out they cannot charge admission to a public space. Renting professional audio equipment and bringing it in themselves, along with an already daunting list of tasks such as venue rental, arranging airfare, accommodation and visas, keeps Hong Kong’s indie promoters on their toes, sometimes having to find creative solutions on the fly.
But despite these obstacles, Hong Kong’s indie music scene is more vibrant than ever, brightening up the city’s events calendar, which is often heavy with arena shows by artists far past their heyday. In the past few years, promoters such as Songs for Children, The Peoples’ Party and White Noise have brought a steady stream of overseas acts to Hong Kong, booking local bands to support them, while The Underground has regularly showcased local bands for almost eight years. Other notable events have been presented by groups such as Chopxticks Entertainments and CityU Band Society. Usually shouldering all the responsibility for marketing the events they organize, gig organizers are a self-selecting group who are thoroughly passionate about changing the status quo.
While the audience for indie groups may be smaller here than in other Asian cities, bookings and performances are met with reactions of delighted incredulity and effusive gratitude by a core base of eager Hong Kong gig-goers. At last May’s performance by Brooklyn’s The Drums, the floor at KITEC’s Rotunda 1 shook for a solid hour while many of the 600 audience members danced and shouted out lyrics. Young fans had lined up from 4pm that day, even though doors didn’t officially open until 7:30, and even stormed the backstage area after the show. Recent exhortations on Clockenflap’s Facebook page have ranged from expressions of disbelief to ecstatic, almost fanatical anticipation.
Yet as the blossoming of a live scene here is without precedent, it remains uncertain how things will evolve in the coming years. Jane Blondel of Songs for Children believes that the scene can’t grow unless people collaborate and encourage smaller shows, creativity and a DIY attitude. “We have really great supporters who do things like distribute flyers, run the door, and translate press releases for free,” she says. “We really couldn’t do this without them.”
Clockenflap’s founders are optimistic about the event’s future, preparing to expand their scope even further next year. While the last festival attracted 3,500 people, this year’s is poised to accommodate 20,000 over two days. “The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority is extremely open-minded and supportive,” says Hill. Forster adds: “West Kowloon is perfect because there are no noise issues. The space is surrounded on three sides by water, so you can actually position the sound system out to sea.” He also cited a great advantage that Hong Kong has for hosting a festival: accessibility. “It’s so easy to get around the city. If you think of Glastonbury, it’s a mission to get there and back.”
While an outdoor festival with a panoramic view should raise Hong Kong’s standing in the eyes of the world’s music-conscious, it’s merely an added benefit to the main goal of giving Hongkongers something to attend at home. “Primarily, it’s for the Hong Kong people,” says Forster. “Everywhere else has already got their festivals.”
In addition, Hong Kong’s bands are well-represented in the line-up, a great sign for Chris B, who founded The Underground to support local music and fight the assumption that the city doesn’t have its own musical talent. Even after years of championing a scene, she says, “I’m very positive. If people want it, and think about it, and talk about it, then something happens.”
Free the Birds: Beijing’s Pet Conspiracy “stole the show in 2009,” says Clockenflap co-founder Mike Hill. Dynamic singer Helen Feng has since left the band, but will be doing her thing this year with infectious and cinematic Free the Birds.
DP: According to Clockenflap co-founder Jay Forster, Hong Kong’s DP are going to “unleash something new, some mayhem” at this year’s festival. Expect wild energy, metal riffs and fierce vocals from this loud-and-proud band.
Poubelle International: Hong Kong trio Poubelle International are “very quirky, fun and entertaining to watch,” according to live gig maven Chris B. These indie poppers are upbeat, ironic and ready to make you dance.
Taiwanese metal band Chthonic rock Hidden Agenda
Earlier this year, it seemed like grungy venue Hidden Agenda was headed for closure. A letter from the Lands Department had warned that it was a misuse of industrial space and that the owners had 30 days to rectify the situation. Yet months later, the inconspicuous space, located in a Kwun Tong industrial building, is still open and hosting gigs. How?
According to manager Kimi Lam, the Hidden Agenda team has stayed put while enlisting a lawyer and meeting with various officers to combat the charges. Their hope is to fall within a legislative gray area and carry on as before. The Lands Department still sends letters, and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has also stepped in to remind them that they can’t sell drinks at events without an entertainment license. “But because the building is not zoned for commercial use, we cannot apply for any sort of commercial license,” added Lam. She said that they have checked out other spaces and will move Hidden Agenda if they can find something affordable.
A more immediate issue is the lease, up for renewal in December. Unsurprisingly, the current landlord has reservations about allowing Lam and company to re-sign. Supporters should stay tuned.
6/F, Ko Leung Industrial Building, 25 Dai Yip St., Kwun Tong. Check out the lineup of upcoming shows at www.hiddenagendahk.com. Major updates or announcements about the future of Hidden Agenda will be posted on its Facebook page (www.facebook.com/hiddenagendahk).