Clockenflap is back. Those three words represent more than the return of Hong Kong’s largest indie music festival, which has been on hiatus since 2018. They’re a symbol of new beginnings after four years of upheaval and uncertainty – not exactly a return to the past, but a sign of hope that Hong Kong’s creative spirit is still alive.
“It’s a proper return,” says festival co-founder Justin Sweeting. “We’ve had the opportunity to come back a few times during the pandemic itself, but we made a decision early on that we weren’t going to bring Clockenflap back until we could have the experience that made it fun in the first place. That means people being able to roam around the site, to stand or sit as they like, to have [food and drink] and a combo of local and regional artists. Those are things that are the core essence of what we want to give people. So we waited until the time was right when we were sure we could make that happen.”
Hongkongers are certainly up to the occasion. Tickets to Clockenflap have sold out for the first time in the festival’s 15-year history. Attendees to next week’s festival, which runs from March 3 to 5, will be treated to a mix of up-and-coming and well-loved international acts, from Norwegian folk-pop duo Kings of Convenience — back after a decade-long hiatus — to Canadian dream-pop band Men I Trust, by way of Wu-Tang Clan, Arctic Monkeys, The Cardigans and Moderat.
And then there are the local bands: Canto rappers Youngqueenz, post-punk electronic collective 南洋派對N.Y.P.D. (naam4 joeng4 paai3 deoi3), rockers David Boring and so many more. For Sweeting, who serves as music director not just of Clockenflap but of its parent company, events and ticketing group Magnetic Asia, that’s one of the highlights of the Clockenflap comeback.
“One of the very few positives to come out of the pandemic is that there has been a focus and spotlight put on local scenes,” he says. Sweeting has spent the last 20 years involved in Hong Kong music and what he saw during the past few years, with borders closed and no international touring acts, was a renewed commitment for local music. When restrictions eased and concerts were once again allowed, bands that once struggled to fill 100-seat venues were selling out music halls many times that size. Audiences who might have previously eschewed local independent acts were discovering the breadth of talent in Hong Kong.
“People like Serrini are at a different level than they were a few years ago,” says Sweeting, referring to the stage name of rising star Serruria Leung Ka-yan, who is known for pairing irreverent lyrics with catchy tunes. What that means for the festival is that local acts are more prominent than in the past. “We’ve got more local artists closing stages than we’ve had before,” says Sweeting. “We’re making an effort to put really strong local acts early on the main stage, confident they’ve got pull to bring people early to the festival. It means things are developing in ways we’re excited to see.”
It also means that independent Hong Kong bands might have a bright future beyond Hong Kong. The Clockenflap team has not been immune to the exodus of talent that the city has seen since the beginning of the pandemic. While festival CEO Mike Hill is still based in Hong Kong, artistic director Jay Forster has moved back to his native UK and Sweeting has immigrated with his family to Canada, where he lives with his wife and three young children just outside the national capital, Ottawa.
He made the move to give his family fresh air, more space and a relaxed lifestyle – not to mention a taste of proper winter. “I didn’t grow up with snow so when I see it, I get as giddy as the kids do,” he says. But it’s also an opportunity to expand Magnetic’s business overseas. Aside from Clockenflap, the company has focused on bringing international acts to Hong Kong. Now, with Sweeting in Canada and Forster in the UK, it’s also working on bringing Asian acts to the West.
“There have always been larger scale Cantopop acts that have made it to the West to play for predominantly expat Hong Kong audiences,” says Sweeting. “My goal is to take Asian acts and introduce them to predominantly local audiences over here.” He says the global success of K-pop groups like BTS has revealed a wellspring of interest in Asian pop music. “But there’s also more interest in the independent and underground scenes in Asia – artists like Sunset Rollercoaster from Taiwan are selling out venues over here.”
Sweeting has already booked a North American tour for Taiwanese indie rock band deca joins. He hopes to do the same for many of the Hong Kong groups on this year’s Clockenflap bill. “The first step is to develop a reliable touring circuit,” he says. “On the artists’ side, there’s so much interest to come this way [to North America]. We just need to make it reliable. There’s scope and opportunity to grow and nurture audiences here. For the first time, there’s genuine hunger and desire for these acts.”
It’s something to keep in mind if you’re one of the lucky music lovers who scored tickets for Clockenflap’s triumphant return: Hong Kong music is back, not just here, but everywhere.
Clockenflap runs from March 3 to 5, 2023 at the Central Harbourfront Event Space. Click here for more information.