Sound Matters: The SEM Blog


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Gabriele de Seta – The no-venue underground: Sounding Hong Kong’s lack of performance spaces

It’s 10 October 2012. I’ve been living in Hong Kong for less than two months, and Dennis Wong is waiting for me to arrive at the performance venue and do my sound check. Fellow experimental musicians from Shanghai suggested Dennis as one of the local organizers with whom I should get in touch.

A few weeks before, Dennis asked me if I wanted to play a show at a newly-opened local venue called C.I.A. (Cultural Industries Association—the acronym is also a play on the covert and secret operations of the U.S. CIA). “Sure,” I said, “when and where?” Dennis gave me an address and asked me if I needed anything else besides a guitar amplifier. I didn’t.

Now I stand outside the Kwai Hing MTR station, which, according to Google Maps, is the closest station to the venue. As I carry my hollow-body guitar and a backpack full of effect pedals, I try to find my bearings via GPS. The air is still heavy and humid, although Hong Kong is cooler in the fall than during the summer, and there aren’t 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 me stands a dense cluster of residential towers and a public housing estate. In front of me I see a wall of industrial buildings, the overpass disappearing into a small crevice between two of them.

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

I spend ten minutes circling around the block, following the directions provided by Google Maps, only to realize that there is no way of crossing the six lanes of Hing Fong Road. I memorize the address of C.I.A. and put my smartphone back in my pocket: Unit 7, 8th floor, Block B, Wah Tat Industrial Centre, 8-10 Wah Sing Street, Kwai Hing, Kowloon, Hong Kong. I head back to the station, walk through the overpass, an elevated courtyard, another overpass, down an escalator, and 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. Once I find the Wah Tat Industrial Centre, I still have to figure out how to reach Block B and how to get to the eighth floor. When I reach the elevator, the security guard instructs me: “that is the cargo elevator. People go in that other one.” The only signal that helps me find C.I.A.’s metal door is the bass frequencies reverberating in the damp corridors. I slide a heavy metal door open and I’m greeted by Dennis and the other musicians doing their sound checks and preparing for the show in a large whitewashed room with no windows.

de-seta-image-2A few weeks later, my Shanghainese friend Huang Lei tells me he’s been invited to perform in Hong Kong and asks me if I can help him organize another show. I get in touch with Dennis, who kindly agrees to set up a show for Huang Lei in his “NOISE to SIGNAL” series. We coordinate the details of the event through Facebook messages and I help him designing a flyer.

This time the venue, Strategic Sounds, is located on the 10th floor of the High Win Factory Building in Kwun Tong District, an industrial area on the other side of the Kowloon peninsula. Huang Lei, Dennis, and I end up playing an improvised set together, a twenty-minute mess of prepared guitar, crackling electronics, and distorted feedback echoing down the grimy ventilation shaft right outside the venue.

Throughout the following year, I was generously invited to play a few more shows at Strategic Sounds and C.I.A., meeting several of the experimental musicians active in the city at the time. Later, both venues closed down under the pressure of increasing rents and the challenges of sustaining an independent performance space in Hong Kong, a difficult enterprise even when eased by the relatively cheaper rents of vacant units in industrial buildings.

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. Video by Rolf.

Of the eight venues where I had the pleasure to play experimental music during my three years in Hong Kong, seven were located in industrial buildings. Besides C.I.A. and Strategic Sounds, they ranged from Dimension+, a small makerspace attached to an artist studio, to Hidden Agenda, a long-standing live-music house well-known among local independent music audiences. During these years, I also enjoyed live performances by some of my favorite musicians and bands, such as Makoto Kawabata, Hijokaidan, and Laibach, which played in shows organized by the same people I hung out with in former factory premises.

The two factors that pushed Hong Kong’s experimental musicians to find spaces in the post-industrial peripheries of the city were the infamously high cost of Hong Kong’s real estate market and the lack of suitable and welcoming performance venues in more central areas. The pubs and clubs hosting live music in central Kowloon and Hong Kong Island predominantly featured DJs and cover bands that catered to the tastes of the commercial audiences that they rely on for financial stability. Given the scarcity of spaces like garages, squats, cellars, and warehouses, experimental musicians turned to the industrial buildings hollowed out by the recent delocalization of factories. Other local artists and creative enterprises had also started taking advantage of these empty spaces.

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

The first Sound-On-Site show organized by booking agency Twenty Alpha and record label Re-Records at A.C.O. (Art & Culture Outreach)—performed at the end of January 2015 and aptly titled “From Below”—poignantly exemplifies  the lack of performance spaces for the local underground and experimental music scenes in Hong Kong. Rather than playing in the small bookstore located on the 14th floor of the Foo Tak Building, the three performing musicians decided to set up their equipment on different landings of the stairwell: laptops on small stools, with amplifiers turned on their side to fit the constraining spaces, cables dangling between floors, and performance areas marked off by improvised signage. Puzzled audiences moved up and down the stairwell, trying to figure out how to reach the floor from which the sounds were coming, or sat on the concrete steps listening to droning frequencies reverberating through the building, which itself became an essential architectural component of musicking. “This reminds me of Beijing,” commented a friend visiting Hong Kong from Mainland China, “but where in Beijing musicians are taking back hutong alleyways and old housing, here it’s all about industrial infrastructure.”

Jonathan Solomon, Ciara Wong, and Adam Frampton have defined Hong Kong as a “city without ground,” lacking the concept of “ground” both physically and culturally. It is somehow ironically appropriate that in this city without ground, underground musicians find themselves relegated to a precarious “overground” actively created 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, leaving local show organizers to work in the present tense with whatever space is available at the moment.

Predominantly sustained by personal passions and practices cultivated in spare time carved out of full-time non-musical careers, Hong Kong’s experimental music scene finds its most reliable spaces on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media platforms, where shows are organized, promoted, documented, and inscribed in the event geography of the city. Riffing on a locution coined by Rob Hayler, the British musician Jon Marshall describes the experimental music scene of Western Russia as a “no-audience underground,” a fluid social milieu in which performers also double as organizers, promoters, critics, and audiences. The situation in Hong Kong isn’t very different. Yet, despite the recurring lamentations of local musicians and organizers, diminutive audiences are not the biggest issue faced by the community. The precariousness and ephemerality of performance spaces determines the elastic and resilient fabric of the local experimental music scene, which could accurately be called a “no-venue underground.”