Gong Gong Gong’s Transnational Rock Has Roots in Hong Kong

The crowd began cheering even before Gong Gong Gong had finished their soundcheck. It was the first night of Clockenflap’s second 2023 edition and the stage on the far side of the festival was thronged with people. They were there to see one of Hong Kong’s most unusual bands: an experimental art rock duo consisting solely of a bassist and a guitarist, with oblique, elliptical lyrics sung mostly in Cantonese.

Except that Gong Gong Gong aren’t really a Hong Kong band, even if both its members have a deep connection to the city. As guitarist and lead vocalist Tom Ng explains, they’re also a Beijing band, a Montreal band and even, “for a year before the pandemic,” a New York band. 

And “experimental art rock” isn’t necessarily how the band would describe themselves, even if that’s often how they’re referred to in the music press. “The contrarian in me would say we’re not a rock band, we’re actually an electronic band that doesn’t have any electronics,” says bassist Joshua Frank with a cheeky smile. “It’s extremely direct music. You can pretty much tell instantly whether you like it or not. And I think it’s not hard to like – it has rhythm and energy. It’s easy to understand.”

Gong Gong Gong were formed in Beijing in 2016 by Ng, a Hong Kong-born graphic designer and animator, and Frank, a Montreal-born documentary filmmaker who spent some of his formative years in both Hong Kong and Beijing, where his parents were stationed as diplomats. Their first album was a lo-fi EP named after the legendary rehearsal studio where it was recorded, the President Piano Company in Mongkok’s Sincere House. Their first full-length recording, Phantom Rhythm 幽靈節奏, came out just before the pandemic in 2019. Now that the pandemic has receded and travel restrictions have eased, they’ve been back on the road, performing in Canada, mainland China, Hong Kong and Japan. 

Ng still lives in Beijing, but Frank decamped for New York in 2018 and then Montreal in 2020. Most of their collaboration is virtual. “We do emails for more serious stuff, Instagram, WhatsApp and mostly WeChat,” says Ng. But Gong Gong Gong are not a virtual band whose music is patched together through digital files; their distinct sound is based on a more fluid kind of collaboration. “As we really rely on jamming together in the same room, it’s actually really challenging to have the band members spread across the world,” says Ng. “We kind of need to fly around to meet up to work as a band, which can be quite hard to organise, as you could imagine.”

Tom Ng (left) and Joshua Frank (right). Photo by Cola Ren

So how exactly did they end up together? It’s a story of two distinct trajectories that intersected at an unlikely time, in an unlikely place. After spending his first few years in Montreal, Frank moved with his family to Manila, then Beijing, where he remembers the fireworks that accompanied the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from Britain to China. Right after the handover, the family was transferred to Hong Kong, where they settled in Pok Fu Lam. After a brief stint back in Canada, the family moved to New Delhi, where Frank and his brother Simon went to secondary school.That’s where they made their first foray into music. “We were frustrated because no one there liked Sonic Youth except our dad,” says Frank. They started a noise rock band called Hot & Cold. Not long after, in 2006, Frank returned to Montreal for university, while his brother and parents returned to Beijing. He visited them every summer during his studies. 

It was a good time to be in Beijing. The indie music scene was flourishing thanks to venues like D22, which nurtured post-punk bands Queen Sea Big Shark, Hedgehog and the Carsick Cars (who were propelled to international fame after they toured with Sonic Youth in 2007). That’s where Hot & Cold played their first-ever show. “I was terribly nervous,” says Frank. “We were just a teenage noise band.” But it was thanks to that show they plunged into the Beijing scene, where they eventually met Ng and his band at the time, The Offset: Spectacles. 

Ng’s journey to Beijing began in Sha Tin, where he grew up in what he describes as “an ordinary family.” His father worked in a hotel and his mother was a housewife, but she often helped her father run a canteen in an industrial building in Kwun Tong. “[They served] really good Chiu Chow food to the entire building’s workers,” says Ng. 

Some of Ng’s uncles had big collections of Cantopop records and he and his brother would borrow them to listen at home. “George Lam, Leslie Cheung, Alan Tam and Anita Mui,” he recalls, listing some of his favourites – artists that now represent Cantopop’s golden era in the 1980s and 90s. Ng was introduced to Western rock music in high school, which inspired him to buy a guitar and form a band when he was around 16. 

After he finished high school, Ng moved to Sydney, where his other grandfather lived, to study at university. He returned home after finishing his degree, but soon realised he and his hometown weren’t compatible. “Perhaps due to the more relaxed life in Sydney, living in Hong Kong was really stressful, almost unbearable,” he says. 

To make matters worse, his aspiring musical career was being thwarted by a distinct kind of snobbery. Ng has always written lyrics in Cantonese, but in the 2000s, singing in Cantonese was a deeply unfashionable thing to do in Hong Kong’s indie music scene; nearly every band at the time sang in English. “At the time, fans of Western rock in Hong Kong generally didn’t like [Cantonese] pop,” says Ng. “So if you wrote in Cantonese, your music would be perceived as clichéd. I still get very angry when I think about the reactions, the ugly words and the disdainful looks I got from those people.”

In 2007, Ng and his band played a few shows in Beijing with some other bands from Hong Kong. “The culture shock I felt was huge,” he says. “The venues, the music scene musicians we met, and the rough and tumble lifestyle in Beijing were all very appealing to us, so when we got back to Hong Kong we planned to save up and move to Beijing for a year to make an album.”

They made the jump in 2009, which is also when Ng and Frank — who was living in Taiwan — decided to launch an independent music label, Rose Mansion Analog, which was named after an apartment building on Prat Avenue in Tsim Sha Tsui. But it wasn’t until a few years later that the two friends actually started playing together. “He came back to Beijing for the summer holidays in 2013 and asked me to jam for a bit,” says Ng. “To be honest, I didn’t want to play music anymore because The Offset: Spectacles disbanded in 2011 and I was still really upset about it. But then the jams just sounded so good.”

By then, Frank was doing a master’s degree in journalism in New York, and when he finished his studies, he decided to move to Beijing. He and Ng started Gong Gong Gong soon after. Both of them were inspired by each other’s previous bands. “Tom was trying to play guitar like the drum machine in Hot & Cold, and I was trying to play bass like the lead guitarist in The Offset: Spectacles,” says Frank.

Each of the band’s songs started with a jam. “Usually the jams that last for more than 17 minutes have the quality to be a new song,” says Ng. “And it kind of evolves into a song, almost by itself, through our hands.” His method of writing lyrics is similarly fluid. “It’s almost like free association,” he says. 

Interestingly, though Frank and Ng both speak Mandarin as a second language, Frank doesn’t speak Cantonese, which he took a long time to understand the lyrics of Gong Gong Gong’s songs when he worked with Ng to translate them into English. “I don’t know what Tom is singing, really,” he says. “But I’ve always responded more to sound texture, melody and rhythm than I do lyrics.”

That’s evident even in the band’s name, which the duo found when they were practising in a rehearsal space in Beijing. At one point, Frank looked up and noticed some vinyl characters pasted on the window, advertising carpentry, bricklaying and electrician services:

木工
瓦工
电工

Tom Ng (left) and Joshua Frank (right). Photo by Cola Ren

They were written from left to right, but Frank jokingly turned to Ng and read the second characters vertically: Gong Gong Gong. “I liked the name right away,” says Ng. “I was like, ‘Oh shit, it doesn’t make any sense, but somehow sounded like the music we play. And it has this simple, structural and graphical element that feels very different than actually having a name that means something.”What followed was a truly rock-and-roll kind of DIY operation. Ng designed all the posters and merchandise for the band, while Frank made music videos. They played at underground venues, sometimes literally – at one called Fruityspace in Beijing, the floor shook with metro trains passing underneath. “The show almost got stopped by police because someone filed a complaint about the noise,” recalls Ng. “We quickly became ‘that insanely loud band without drums.’” 

When Frank left Beijing for New York, that opened up the possibility of playing shows overseas. “Gong Gong Gong isn’t playing music that’s for everyone, but we are able to play to small crowds almost everywhere,” says Ng. “The [travel] cost for a duo instead of a four-piece band also helps a lot.” 

The band’s first full-length album came out just before the pandemic. It was greeted with a certain buzz. “At their best, Gong Gong Gong point towards a future where (porous) borders and a vast palette of influences facilitate interesting collaboration,” wrote critic Linnie Greene in an approving review for Pitchfork. “When they’re plugged in, driving towards a chorus or bridge, they sound like an engine of revelation.” 

Even with the forced hiatus caused by Covid restrictions, Gong Gong Gong’s following continued to grow. In 2021, they released a remixed version of Phantom Rhythm, with contributions by Taiwanese psychedelic band Mong Tong, Beijing-based electronic musician Howie Lee and Guangzhou-based DJ Knopha. (Frank’s brother Simon, who is now a musician in Shanghai, also remixed one of the tracks.) When the last of the world’s travel restrictions were lifted last year, the duo was once again able to hit the road. 

In May, Gong Gong Gong played a gig at La Sala Rossa, a renowned Montreal music venue that helped launch bands like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade in the mid-2000s. “This show was also like a gathering of old and new friends from all over the world, unlike the audiences we usually play for during tour,” says Ng. Frank’s family was there, along with Chinese friends living across North America. Chicago-based rock band Horsegirl journeyed up from New York, where Ng had left his guitar. “Even the music director of Clockenflap came to see us,” he says.

That was Justin Sweeting. “I love acts who take creative chances and bring something different and meaningful to the table,” he says. “I really enjoy how clearly obsessed they are by rhythm, and the dynamic of showcasing this through their hypnotic, forward-thrusting instrument interplay rather than having a drummer.” 

The Montreal show was Sweeting’s first time seeing Gong Gong Gong, but he had already extended them an invitation to play Clockenflap later that year. “I was sold on them from what I had heard and seen online before having seen them live in person,” says Sweeting.

The show at Clockenflap, on a grassy patch of Tamar Park overlooking Victoria Harbour, felt like a homecoming. Ng’s parents were in the audience. The crowd grew bigger as the set went on. Frank looked out at the water and the skyline in the distance, recalling the first time he ventured out of the house alone, at the age of 10, and took a bus from Pok Fu Lam to the Star Ferry. “It was pretty trippy,” he says. “It almost didn’t make any sense. Like, how did this happen?”

Frank and Ng are now working on a new album. And in the meantime, they’re keeping up their transnational collaboration: not quite a Hong Kong band in the strict sense of the word, but certainly a Hong Kong band in spirit. 

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