Global Ear: Kowloon

Director’s cut of an article that appeared in issue 253 of The Wire, July 2013.

Looking for the sound of the underground, Kowloon

In a city drowning in the saccharine ballads and slick boy-bands 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.

My quest finally brings takes me to the sixth floor of a disused industrial block in Kowloon, far from the hypermodern skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island. This is Culture Industries Association (CIA), Hong Kong’s newest – and arguably only – space dedicated to experimental music.

CIA is the brainchild of Xper.Xr, a seasoned Hong Kong experimenter and free spirit, to address the chronic need for independent art and performance spaces in the city.

A veteran of the Hong Kong experimental music scene, Xper.Xr’s 1989 cassette Murmur was the city’s very first industrial noise recording. Following a 12-year sabbatical in London he returned to Hong Kong at the end of 2012 with a vision that would become CIA. “I wanted a place where a few different things could happen,” he tells me. “A place for exhibitions, seminars, workshops, film clubs and gigs.”

There have been experimental musicians working in the city since the late 1980s. Artists such as Li Chin Sung, aka Dickson Dee, who released the first compilation of home-grown experimental music in China, and electro-acoustic glitch artist Alok Leung, who since 2003 has run the Lona label, and others, operated as outliers to Hong Kong’s fast-growing alternative rock scene at the turn of the century.

Lona in particular is one of the Hong Kong underground’s success stories. Over the past decade Alok has shepherded a diverse flock of avante garde releases out into the world, many as limited run 3-inch or 5-inch CDRs. His very first release in the 3-inch series, ‘All the colours of the dark’, an unsettling piano and electronics duo with Wilson Tang, is well worth seeking out, as is electronic duo No-One Pulse’s full-length CDR of free form electronics, ‘LINGK’.

Latterly, Lona’s releases have taken more of an international flavour, its latest being ‘Wings of Akira’ by the Ukrainian noise artist Artem Pismenetskii.

Despite Lona’s success, commercial pressures and a population more interested in Cantopop has prevented an experimental scene reaching critical mass. Yet a disparate group of sonic adventurers are persevering in the face of these challenges.

I meet a group of these musicians at CIA. “Experimental music in Hong Kong is like a series of sparks, rather than linear development”, says local noise artist Rolf Oxdx. In many ways Rolf typifies the maverick spirit of these artists. He creates punishing, twisted electronic noisescapes under the Orgasm Denial moniker, curates the independent Noisoke label and, up until recently, ran the Cut My Throat events at the now-deceased Strategic Sounds.

His latest collaboration, with Acid Mothers Temple guitarist Kawabata Makoto, is a skull-rattling delight created by overdubbing and manipulating layers of distorted guitar and electronic effects into an amorphous, 30-minute blast. Although it is still in production – with a plan for release on cassette from the Fuzz Tape label run by the Chinese noise artist Mei Zhiyong – snippets of the previous ‘Love Phase‘ live session between the two, available from the Noisoke website, offers some hints of what to expect.

Treading a lonely path? Edwin Lo, Rolf Oxdx, Xper.Xr and Kevin Pan at CIA

Rolf and the other musicians I meet are keen to emphasises that there’s no experimental music ‘scene’ in the city. Each musician cleaves to their own creative path. “It’s a very Chinese thing,” suggests Xper.Xr. “We are so close together and perhaps because of that we are so much further apart.”

I ask them about audiences. Who comes to their gigs? “The players. Their partners. Their friends”, says Kevin Pan, a guitarist working in the free improvisation tradition. He shrugs. “There’s no audience. People would rather stay at home and watch YouTube.”

China, with its relatively well-developed experimental music scene, comes up often in our conversation. Shanghai is well-known for noise, they tell me, with events often coalescing around Junky, solo artist and member of Torturing Nurse, with Beijing more well known for punk and sound art. ‘In China, people go out to shows”, says Kevin Pan. “The audience are willing to go to a gig even if they haven’t heard of the performers”, says Rolf Oxdx. “But in Hong Kong they don’t give a fuck.”

It’s strange, then, that links between musicians in these cities and Hong Kong aren’t stronger – a result perhaps of Hong Kong’s previous status as a British Colony, and the current ‘one country, two systems’ approach to government breeding a kind of cultural separateness that is hard to bridge.

But Rolf, Kevin and the others are far from disheartened, and are keen to build stronger bonds with the mainland. “As long as I am here, I’m going to carry on creating music and playing as many gigs as I can,” says Kevin Pan.

A few days later I meet Dennis Wong, aka Wong Chung-fai, aka electro acoustic maverick SIN:NED, and Gabriele De Seta, noise practitioner and curator of label Monstres par Exces. For Wong, there’s a bigger problem. “I don’t even have a venue!” he says. “It’s so difficult to find a venue that is open to music like this.”

Gabriele De Seta and Dennis Wong, just about to drop some science on my sorry ass, Kowloon

He has a point. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities on earth. Sky-high rents are major obstacles to creating autonomous spaces for experimental music. In 2012, Strategic Sounds, a space set up by Adrian Leung, another pillar of the Hong Kong underground, closed because of commercial pressures, leaving an almost total absence of venues for non-mainstream music.

During my visit I also hear grumbles from some musicians that the School of Creative Media in the City University of Hong Kong – which teaches sound art, and numbers local sound artists Edwin Lo and Fiona Lee among its alumni  – is more interested in nurturing its international relationships than supporting a local, grassroots experimental movement.

It’s an imbalance that Xper.Xr is hoping to address with CIA. So, in May, Wong put on a series of his Signal:Noise nights at CIA, showcasing local performers like Kevin Pan, guitarist and electronics duo Yellow Crystal, sound artist Fiona Lee and Wong himself, along with artists from mainland China and further afield.

Social media, in particular Facebook, helped publicise these shows and others. But both Wong and De Seta lament the absence of a more formalised underground press, as typified by magazines such as the long-departed Music Colony Bi-Weekly (MCB), to channel information to a wider public.

For De Seta, an expatriate Italian living in Hong Kong, the role writers and journalists play in creating a critical discourse around the music is crucial. “As musicians we support each other. But you need someone to tell you when something is bad, too,” he explains.

Despite these issues, it’s hard not to feel that things are looking up. May’s series of gigs at CIA has established it as a credible space in Hong Kong, and more events are planned. A group of artists and performers also recently toured Macau, to build links with artists, players and producers there. Links with mainland China are getting stronger.

There are plenty of new releases in the pipeline, from Noisoke, Monstres par Exces and Lona Records. Dennis Wong tells me he is relaunching Re:Records after a period of dormancy. The first release will be a solo recording from South Korean-based improviser Alfred 23 Harth, a recent visitor to CIA.

More than anything, though, it is the stubborn determination of these artists to keep going that is inspiring. “We have accepted that we may not commercial success”, says Xper.Xr, back at CIA. Does it stop us? It could do, but it shouldn’t. Maybe because it is so difficult – that is why we’re doing it.”

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