Monday, 5 April 2010

Make some noise, Hong Kong. Musicians rally to be heard

Make some noise, Hong Kong. Musicians rally to be heard
by Samantha Leese2 April, 2010

photo caption:
Kung: People don’t accept music as an expressive sound.

There is a legend in Hong Kong about an outdoor concert. To combat complaints from nearby residents about the expected noise level ahead of a performance at an outdoor sports stadium, officials proposed giving the audience gloves to mute their applause and headphones that would replace the speaker set up. As a reaction, the gig was cancelled and since then big outdoor events have been few and far between.

Regardless of the accuracy of this legend, at its core is the issue -- Hong Kong has a Noise Control Ordinance that can restrict outdoor music events to a decibel level of 70. This may surprise many residents, since elsewhere the sound of drills and construction dominates the landscape. As a point of reference, the average household vacuum cleaner reaches 80 db.

This has been the official Acceptable Noise Level, or aptly shortened ANL (say it fast), for decades. What is new is the campaign to change it.

After a series of embarrassments blighted Kung Chi-Shing’s concert series the Indie Ones last month, the experimental artist and a number of young music champions have spearheaded a movement called Make Some Noise, Hong Kong.

The group aims to lobby the government by early next year to grant sound permits to concert organizers on an event-to-event basis. The permits, which would be available by application, would relax noise restrictions on the outdoor events for a given period of hours.

Make Some Noise began as a Facebook group on March 25, and has gained impressive traction on the social networking site. Membership climbed to 1,900 people in just under one week
The campaign launched days before CNNGo revealed the Hong Kong government’s push for space restrictions on street musicians. The Open Stage plan, which threatens to come into effect this summer, will force artists to audition in front of a panel of ‘experts’ for the right to perform on the pavement.

For Kung, who works to democratize music with free open-air concerts at the Hong Kong Arts Centre and beyond, the future of Hong Kong’s cultural landscape depends on the success of a bigger kind of democracy.

Tell me about the problems you've had with noise control in Hong Kong.

I’ve been organizing monthly concerts outside the Hong Kong Arts Centre in Wan Chai for over a year now, and I’ve never received a complaint. But at those I only have the drum set going for one hour from, say, 7 to 8. So I am able to get away with it, because I’m already dealing with a certain amount of restraint. The problem for me is it’s hard to get bands to come before 8. It’s a very frustrating thing.

What happened at the Indie Ones?

The Indie Ones was pretty much a nightmare for me. I’d planned [the concerts] for three consecutive Saturdays, from 3pm- 6pm. I thought it wouldn’t be a problem if they happened in the day time.

We sent out flyer and email notices to the residential buildings nearby. We warned them there would be some noise, but said that we would be reasonable and that we’d finish early. Also, the way I programmed it, it wasn’t like it was loud music. I think I held the quietest hip-hop concert in the world.

But at the first [event], residents started to complain. Every time the police came, I had to turn down [the sound] more and more. The second time they came, I stopped miking up the drums, but they kept coming and coming.

Would you say the government's control of noise is unreasonable?

Of course, it’s annoying. But I do try to put myself in the residents’ position. If somebody hates rock’n’roll, hates drum sets, then [a concert in their backyard] is really going to get on their nerves.

But, I mean, one of the residents complained -- I think he wrote us an email -- to say that the noise would disturb his son’s studying for the public exams and ruin his future as a doctor or something. [Laughs]

If you want to talk about education, arts and music have more educational value than things like technology … but that’s the situation in Hong Kong.

Can the situation change?

Well, there doesn’t seem to be much thinking.

Hong Kong is famous for its noise pollution. But somehow, people don’t complain about the noise they encounter every day. They accept a lot of noise that is very negative. Then, when they hear something different, it’s like they finally have a target to attack.

I think what gets on people’s nerves is not the loud noise, but the different noise. And that reflects another situation -- the tolerance and the cultural background of the people. They just don’t accept music as an expressive sound.

Why are street performances and outdoor music events like the Indie Ones and your Arts Centre programme important to the city?

It’s about tolerance and diversity. It’s about [encouraging] art on a street level, on a local level. The government keeps talking about West Kowloon. For them, that is art. It has to be spectacular. They think the only way Hong Kong can match New York, Paris, or London is if we have a Lincoln Centre and a Broadway.

They forget one thing. What makes New York New York is the jazz musician on the corner of the street. You can’t focus on the peak of something and totally ignore its foundation.

And doesn't it undermine the supposed ethos of the West Kowloon Cultural District project to then impede artists from performing at a grass roots level?

Yes. They talk about how much they want to promote culture … They’re a bunch of bureaucrats. They have no idea what culture is really about. They’re willing to spend billions of dollars to be on the same ‘level’ as other international cities, but they forget to work on the people at the bottom. I think that sometimes the art policy in this city hurts art more than it promotes art.

The only way to make a difference is to do it ourselves. Change never comes from above; it always comes from under.

How do you hope to make a difference?

The thing I’m fighting against, it’s almost from an educational standpoint. It’s not about me having somewhere to play my music.

At my concerts at the Arts Centre, I see a lot of parents who come with their kids. They’re 7 or 8 or teenagers -- young kids who can’t go to a club and see a rock band at 12 o’clock at night. You’re providing outdoor events to expose them to [music they can’t otherwise hear].

Again, it’s about cultivation and education, which is so valid. It’s so important. We need to have these sorts of activities in Hong Kong, we need the government to save them, and we need the general public to support them.

How involved are you in the Make Some Noise movement?

I think the whole thing started because of what happened at my concert, so I am involved. What we’re doing at the moment is trying to make people aware of the issue. Then, in a few weeks time, we’ll have to have two types of gathering.

To one, we should invite as many people as possible. At the same time we should form a small working committee, who will look into the policy and talk to the media and the politicians and the people who can help us.

It’s all about action. The Wan Chai District Council is supportive of my concerts at the Arts Centre, but I had to do it first. I do worry that the Facebook group is not enough. You can have 2,000 or 20,000 people talking, but you need someone who will act.

Do you think the government will listen to you?

I think eventually they will. In my experience they don’t listen to individuals, but once you gain the support of the general public they will start to pay attention. I’ve been here almost 25 years. I know it’s possible to make changes. Sometimes it takes a long time, but it is possible.

What’s your opinion on the Open Stage plan?

[Sighs] It’s a joke. There’s no understanding at the government level, and it’s very sad. But the best we can do is come at them with a reasonable [counter-proposal].

How would you describe the street music scene in Hong Kong?

There really isn’t one. In the West, street music is a combination of two things. One is art, and the other is a job. Lots of musicians survive that way. I’m not really pushing for a culture like that.

I find Hong Kong to be a very exciting city, physically. When you walk down the street, it’s incredibly exciting -- the rhythm, everything, the energy. But one thing that’s lacking is music, right?

I mean, you go to Cuba, you walk through Havana and it’s like music everywhere, people are everywhere playing on the street. And everything somehow makes sense. I want to create that kind of energy. It’s positive, it’s active, and it brings people together. Music has to be part of a modern city’s landscape.

What would you have done with the money that’s being poured into the West Kowloon project?

I would have opened up an art school. I’d have created something organic and personal. If I had the money, I would focus on the individual artists, rather than set up a so-called high standard for them to reach. Art is about individualistic expression. You can’t have one standard by which to judge artists. You can’t have one standard to say what good art for the city is, to say what good art policy for the city is.

What do you think the future holds for artists in Hong Kong?

I am hopeful. Uphill battles are always good for artists. When we’re too comfortable, we don’t make good art. When there’s a reason to fight, it forces us to do something.


Samantha Leese is a writer born and raised in Hong Kong. Bound by wanderlust and curiosity, Sam has lived all over the world. Read more about Samantha Leese