As thousands of young people take to the streets in protest at the mainlandification of Hong Kong, local musicians reflect on identity and what it means to be a Hongkonger.
A group of kids are dressed in mourning tones of black, masks pulled over their faces to avoid detection – and any tear gas. They rest on the side of the road after a protest in Kowloon, Hong Kong, right underneath a cheeky billboard by a hotel that asks: “What does your revolution look like?”
This particular revolution has been underway in Hong Kong since June 2019. It started off as demonstrations against a bill that could allow the city’s visitors and residents to be extradited to China to stand trial there. Many Hongkongers have little trust in the Chinese legal system and believed the bill would provide an opportunity for China to quash dissent and jail human rights’ defenders in the semi-autonomous region. After the government refused to yield and police violence escalated, it quickly evolved into a movement that demands, among other things, an independent task force to check police powers, and democracy.
Some have called this summer of discontent the gravest political crisis in Hong Kong since the transfer of sovereignty from the UK to China in 1997. Although the bill has since been withdrawn, the protests show no signs of dying down, with demonstrators vowing to carry on until the police are held accountable and other demands are met.
On August 17, at the same hotel that has branded itself as a space for interdisciplinary arts and creativity – a rare move in an uber-capitalist city that often punishes those who dare take a stance – a music show named PAIN takes place. It features three underground bands that have become cult favourites among Hong Kong’s relatively small circle of music lovers: David Boring, murmur, and Ex-Punishment.
That night, as many gig regulars and I take a break from the streets to clutch beers in a hotel venue, where crystal chandeliers tremble above thudding bass lines, we keep our phones close to check the latest news updates. When midnight comes around, we realise that it is the first weekend in weeks that the government has not deployed tear gas on protesters.
Just two years ago, this exact set of bands put on a show that ran on a theme of “the end of the world”. This time, they have chosen to go with pain. The event’s official description is “Pain makes sense when so much around us is senseless. It hurts too much to hang on. So why does it hurt so much to let go.” It’s a glorious, cathartic gig pulsating with fevered energy. Vocals that border on screaming, frantic moshers hoping to exorcise the pent-up anger from their systems, musicians and attendees alike all basking in pain and solidarity at once.
Decked in red tartan and blue lipstick, vocalist of murmur, Blythe Cheung, fiddles with fairy lights through the first few songs, slowly wrapping them around herself. With each song she appears more possessed – by the finale, she looks with terror at the lights she’s clutching and hunches over on the ground, shaking and inconsolable. Blythe is also a visual artist, and after the show I tell her that her demeanour was almost like performance art. She disagrees. She doesn’t see it as a performance at all.
I saw Blythe perform with murmur as early as 2014, when her band still favoured drifting shoegaze tones over their current experimentalism. But by 2017, the last show they performed before they took a long break, the band had descended into full-on post-punk. This reunion gig is billed as murmur’s last show, and Blythe is soon to leave Hong Kong for London to start her MFA at the Slade School of Fine Art.
This will be the first time she will live in a city other than Hong Kong for an extended period of time. Prior to this, she says, even though she was born, raised and educated here, it was unnecessary to dwell on questions such as what it means to be a Hong Kong artist. “I didn’t think I needed some geographical marker. I felt that as long as you were a human being you would have the capacity to understand my work,” she says. And that capacity would not be affected by one’s identity as defined by nationality or citizenship.
Blythe also says she never felt that as an artist in Hong Kong she had to fully embrace the city’s lingering aesthetic symbols, from local eateries such as dai pai dongs and cha chaan tengs, to films by Stephen Chow and Wong Kar-wai. Doing so would be so on the nose that it would be kitsch, she adds, and while she would appreciate those who could find new angles out of this, it was not her. “It feels quite boring for me. I’ve seen that kind of narrative a lot of times and honestly it runs very dry and dull. This discourse is so saturated.”
Her imminent departure might change that. “I don’t think I can answer the question of what it is to be a Hongkonger right now because I’m always here, I don’t have that distance. But soon I’ll be a Hong Kong artist based in London. Maybe I’ll feel a longing for home, and who knows if I’ll start drawing stir-fry beef noodles,” she says. For now, it is still impossible for her to imagine what that will be like, for her to start “othering” things she grew up with.
With the recent protests, Blythe says she felt a need to be more overt and direct with her work. In the past, it used to be more about the vastness of the human condition, but now there’s a new sense of urgency, one that compels her to confront the fact that she is “living in this chaos”.
“The movement really makes me feel I’m from Hong Kong and, by definition, this identity isn’t shaped by the material conditions of its individuals, but a collective consciousness from its history and cultural background,” Blythe says.
I think about how, over the past week at 10pm sharp every evening, my neighbours would open their window and yell out, “Go Hongkongers!”, their voices echoing through my cul-de-sac, and how this action was replicated throughout all of Hong Kong’s districts at that exact moment. No one had ever really agreed on what made a Hongkonger, and yet we all somehow just knew.
Behind the ticket desk at the venue that night is Tomii Chan, an indie musician who plays with Hong Kong band Stranded Whale and dabbles in genres from electronic to country in his solo work. But closest to his heart is blues music. It comes through in his guitar playing, and he admits that he’s heavily influenced by its history and spirit. In a few months, Tomii will be co-organising the second edition of a blues festival he founded last year.
A full-time musician, Tomii has had two gigs cancelled because of the demonstrations, and friends around him have started actively making plans to emigrate. As for himself, Tomii says, he has more reasons to stay than go. He would miss the city, his friends, and speaking Cantonese too much.
“I can’t deny the impact the circumstances of Hong Kong have had on me. I live here and grew up here,” he says. Even though the content of his music doesn’t lean towards being particularly “localist”, his identity as a Hong Kong musician runs in his blood, from his personality to his love for the versatile and colourful Cantonese swear words and the language’s largely untranslatable expressions.
While Tomii took part in the 2014 Umbrella Movement – when pro-democracy Hongkongers took to the streets over the right to elect their own leader – he says he barely remembers his experience. This summer, however, he was keeping a close eye on the developments and protesting whenever he could. He was not on the frontline of the demonstrations, clashing with police, nor was he particularly noticeable, but he was happy with being an “ordinary protester”, he says.
Enraged by police brutality during these clashes, Tomii began keeping a folder on his computer of all the videos and gifs that feature police officers and marked down the dates, creating an unofficial archive of sorts. When a friend started collecting evidence of police abuse of power to put together an investigative report of his own, he contributed material to the research.
Tomii says that with the recent protests and the tense atmosphere, it feels as though more people have been turning to blues music. “Even if that connection wasn’t spelled out, blues is a genre that emerged out of oppression, so it speaks to the current times. People, including myself, could find comfort in the music.”
A fellow gig-goer that night is Rocky, frontman of two emo bands and a frontline reporter at a newspaper. At the time of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, when protesters occupied major thoroughfares for 79 days to call for democracy, Rocky wrote an article for a New York-based web- site, which became his entry into the profession. In between writing confessional songs on his guitar and running an independent record label, he files stories and runs from one press conference to another.
“I guess I wanted to be there when things unfold- ed, and this job lets me do that. As a reporter my job is to tell the truth to the best of my abilities, and to be critical,” he tells me.
Rocky has been on the ground for many of the clashes in recent months. When protesters occupied the Legislative Council, which was unprecedented in the city, he remembers feeling anxious at the young faces in the decision-making chamber, ready to face whatever consequences there might be. “There is no going back,” he thought at the time.
At PAIN, Rocky elbows his way to the front, violently tossing his floppy bangs along to the music and dancing with abandon. His own band, Wellsaid, plays 90s-style math-rock, and the shows they put on are among the most energetic I’ve ever been to. While he covers Hong Kong politics in his job, the heartfelt lyrics often have more to do with his lived experiences than the condition of being in Hong Kong itself. “Being a Hongkonger is a peculiar thing. It is a collective identity unrecognised by official powers, but true and tangible as any other. I don’t think enough people get that.”
But the hectic protest schedule means he’s often exhausted and forced to cut back on writing music. When he does, it is “darker and heavier”, he notes. “Processing the protests as news events is one task, but to form judgments afterwards as a Hongkonger takes another toll. It’s like I am experiencing these things twice sometimes.” Even if the protests end, he says, the stakes are now higher for the city.
At times like this, art comes as a solace, even when it merely takes the form of Post-it notes on the multicoloured Lennon Walls that have emerged across Hong Kong’s districts. They are there, Rocky says, to “lift social movements from the physical to the spiritual realm.”
“It gives us a way out of the gritty, cold and hard facts of people getting hurt and mistreated, if only for a few seconds,” he says. “It reminds us why Hongkongers started this fight.”
This piece has been taken from the Listen Up Issue of HUNGER, out now, available here. Below is a Chinese translation of Karen Cheung’s feature, translated by Rain Cheng.
Karen Cheung 報道
同一間酒店於8月17日舉辦名為「痛苦」（PAIN）的音樂表演，酒店定位為「激進社會改革」的空間，在一個極度資本主義的城市，表明立場容易招惹麻煩，實屬罕見之舉。是次表演邀請三支地下樂隊，他們在香港小眾音樂愛好者的圈子中，受到熱烈追捧，他們分別是：David Boring、 murmur 和 Ex-Punishment。
就在兩年前，這支樂隊舉辦了一場以「世界末日」（the end of the world）為主題的演出。這次，他們選擇與痛苦同行。活動的官方描述是：「荒謬親體如膚，苦可有岸？在乎痛心，解結憂更深。」這是一場輝煌、宣泄情緒的演出，充滿狂熱的能量。一邊是尖叫的主唱，一邊是隨著搖滾樂節奏搖擺的狂舞者，他們希望驅走身體裡壓抑的憤怒，音樂家和與觀眾同時沉浸在痛苦和團結之中。
當晚，在售票處後面的是獨立音樂人Tomii Chan，他與香港樂隊Stranded Whale合作，在他的個人作品中涉獵電子音樂到鄉村音樂的各種流派。最貼近他內心的是藍調音樂。這一點在他的吉他演奏中體現出來，他承認深受藍調的歷史和精神的影響。Tomii去年成立藍調音樂節，即將在幾個月後舉辦第二屆。
在這個動蕩不安的時代，Tomii的音樂具備深刻的治癒效果。在 “Don ‘t let a good thing go by”一曲中，他深情的歌聲在帶鄉村氣息的滑音吉他伴奏下哀嘆道：“The world keeps on changing / Everyday / Our mind would not rest / Even when you sleep / Now catch your breaths /And see it through / Cause you are not the only one to know.”
Taken from HUNGER’s Listen Up issue. Click here for further information or to purchase.
20 November 2019