It must have been a strange sight for passers-by. In the plaza in front of the Hong Kong Art Centre in Wan Chai, a man in black-framed glasses and an untucked white Oxford shirt nodded his head rhythmically while spinning dials on a soundboard. Next to him, another young man, dressed entirely in white, spun himself around again and again like a dreidel on Hanukkah. Electronic music pulsed from a speakers stacked on top of one another. It was a performance that seemed to feed on the energy of the city around it: maddening, obsessive, dizzying.[www.urbanphoto.net]
Six minutes later, it came to an end. Daniel Yeung, the dancer, walked over to Choi Sai-ho, the bespectacled musician, and clasped their hands together, raising them in the air. Then a man with long grey hair and a braided goatee walked over, thanking them both. This was Kung Chi-shing, a violinist and composer who is better known these days as the godfather of Hong Kong’s independent music scene.
All of this took place in early 2011. It was one of the most remarkable public performances I’ve seen, and I have Kung to thank for it. For the past six years, Kung has organised the Street Music Series, an eclectic programme of street concerts that take place twice every month. It’s a rare chance to hear musicians play outside of the few small bars and cramped industrial venues to which live music is normally confined in Hong Kong. And, best of all, it’s an opportunity to see artists from wildly different fields perform together.
“The problem in Hong Kong is that the genres are so separated, even among musicians,” says Kung. “How come Chochukmo can’t work together with the New Music Ensemble?”
It’s a breezy October evening and I have just come across Kung sitting at the rooftop bar on Central Pier 3. He’s about to catch a ferry to Discovery Bay to have dinner with his daughter, Chiara, and his ex-wife, Valerie Doran, one of Hong Kong’s leading translators and curators. But for now, he is looking for a hot drink. “With alcohol,” he specifies. “I’m fighting off a cold.” He orders a hot toddy with rum, but the bartender makes it with whisky instead. “Whisky is better for your cold,” she says, jovially, when she delivers the drink.
Kung knows his booze: his family owned a liquor store in Tai O, where he was born. He spent his childhood by the sea. When he was 11, his older brother introduced him to classical music. He turned out to have a gift for the violin, and in the late 1970s, he went to music school in Hawaii before continuing his studies in Pennsylvania. In 1987, after returning to Hong Kong, Kung joined British artist Peter Suart and started The Box, an experimental project that blended music, theatre and visual art. “The Box was like a marriage,” Kung once said. “Peter and I kept fighting, separating and getting back together.” Kung began mentoring young musicians in 2008, when he founded Kung Music Workshop.
“Before that, I was totally focused on myself as an artist,” he says. “Since then I’ve really embraced the city. I’m not a politician but I’m really unhappy with the situation in Hong Kong, and the only way I can change things is through cultural means.” He refers to himself as a music activist – “or whatever you want to call it.”
Kung takes a tough-love approach to Hong Kong music. “There are around 1,200 bands in Hong Kong, and in my opinion, about five of them are really strong enough to play internationally,” he says. There are lots of problems: Hong Kong is too expensive for most musicians to work full-time, so playing in a band becomes a hobby more than anything else. And even those bands that achieve success seem unable to really express themselves. “The problem is that most of the best indie bands, they write in English,” he says. “It becomes a sort of imitation [of Western acts].”
It may be an effort to escape the mainstream Cantopop industry, which is so pervasive and so suffocating, many independent artists feel the need to define themselves in opposition to it.
“Once you write in Cantonese, you end up in a certain melodic pattern because of 30 years of brainwashing,” says Kung. “You really have to decondition yourself.”
Luckily, Kung is in a position to change things. Just over two years ago, Street Music received a four-year grant from the Jockey Club, which has allowed Kung to stage two shows a month at locations around the city, including the Arts Centre, Comix Homebase, the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront and the Shatin town square. The money has also given him the chance to mentor young musicians, though he says his efforts aren’t always well received.
“It’s that rebellious attitude of rock musicians – imagine if the UK government tried to help the Sex Pistols,” he says, chuckling.
Kung’s latest project is even more ambitious: he was recently tasked with developing the West Kowloon Cultural District’s music programme. West Kowloon’s woes have been widely publicised: its well-regarded CEO, Michael Lynch, resigned earlier this year, and Lars Nittve, the acclaimed director of the M+ visual arts museum, announced that he will not renew his contract when it expires at the end of the year. But Kung actually seems somewhat optimistic about the project. “After joining them for two months, I do see some possibilities,” he says.
One of those possibilities is the chance for Kung to break down the barriers that divide Hong Kong’s creative scenes – like he did with The Box in the 1980s, and like he did with Choi Sai-ho and Daniel Yeung in 2011. “Things become different when they crash together,” he says. “There’s some kind of energy, a chemical reaction. In today’s world, just doing a pure thing is not so good anymore. I mean, Kraftwerk without their visuals…” He trails off, then wonders aloud whether he could convince a Hong Kong rock band to perform a soundtrack to a local silent film from the 1920s. “Maybe,” he says, the gears already turning in his head.
Where & When: Street Music Series takes place twice every month at locations around the city. Check hkstreetmusic.com for more details. The next edition takes place at the Luen Wo Market in Fanling, on November 1, 2015 between 1pm and 6pm. Several groups will perform, including African music by One Harmony, traditional yangqin music by Alice Chu and pop music by Jun Chan. next Street Music Series is going to Luen Wo Hui, Fanling with a line up of seven groups.