Art & Culture / Documentary

Identity in Chaos: Exploring what it means to be a Hongkonger amid protest

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 Although the bill has since been withdrawn, the protests show no signs of dying down, with demonstrators vowing to carry on until the police are held accountable and other demands are met.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.

亂世再思「個人身份」

 香港陷入政治危機之際 三位音樂人對香港人身份意義的反思
Karen Cheung 報道

 

一群年輕人身穿全民哀悼的黑色衣服,他們戴著口罩遮蓋臉容,為了躲避人臉辨識或突如其來的催淚彈。在一場九龍抗爭結束後,他們坐在路旁稍作休息,正上方一幅逗趣的廣告牌寫著「你的生命變革是怎樣的一段故事?」

這場「革命」自2019年6月以來一直在香港進行。事源於一連串示威活動,目的是反對一項香港遊客及居民被引渡到中國受審的條例。許多香港人對中國的法律體制缺乏信任,他們認為這條法例將會為中國提供一個鎮壓異見的機會,並在這半自治區監禁維權人士。在政府拒絕讓步、警察暴力升級之後,迅速演變成一場爭取其他訴求的運動,包括成立獨立調查委員會來監警權力及爭取民主。

有些人認為今年動盪不安的夏天是香港自1997年英國將主權移交中國以來最嚴重的政治危機。儘管條例已經撤回,但抗爭並沒有減弱的跡象,示威者誓要抗爭到底,直至追究警察濫權的責任,其他訴求得到回應為止。

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。

當晚許多演出常客和我在街上小憩一下,在酒店的酒會上喝啤酒,水晶吊燈在低音旋律中晃動,我們把手機放在身邊,查看最新的新聞。當午夜來臨的時候,我們意識到這是幾個星期來,政府首次沒有使用催淚彈來驅散示威者。

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。

身穿紅色格子裙和塗上藍色唇膏的是murmur主唱Blythe Cheung,她撥弄著閃光燈,慢慢地把它們裹在自己身上。每首歌她都顯得更著迷,最後一曲中,她驚恐地看著手裡抓著的燈光,蜷縮在地上,顫抖著,傷心欲絕。Blythe也是一名視覺藝術家,演出結束後,我告訴她,她的行為舉止幾乎就像表演藝術。她不同意。她不視之為一場表演。

早在2014年,我就看過Blythe與murmur的演出,當時她的樂隊仍然喜歡浮沉的shoegaze聲調,而不是他們現時的實驗主義風格。但到2017年,這支樂隊未對外公佈停演前的最後一場演出,已經完全變成迷幻搖滾。最近的重聚演出被宣傳為murmur的訣別演出,Blythe即將離開香港,前往倫敦大學學院斯萊德學院(UCL Slade)攻讀美術碩士學位。

這位藝術音樂家首次在香港以外的城市長期居住。她說,在此之前,儘管她在這裡出生、長大和接受教育,但沒有必要去細想成為「香港藝術家」意味著什麼。她說:「我不認為需要地理位置作為標記。我覺得,只要你是一個人,你就有能力理解(我的工作)。」這種資格不受國籍或公民身份所界定的身份所影響。

Blythe表示作為一名香港藝術家,她從未覺得自己必須完全贊同和接受香港縈繞不散的美學符號,從大排檔和茶餐廳,到周星馳和王家衛的電影。她補充道,這樣做會顯得過於草率,顯得廉價庸俗。雖然她欣賞那些能從中找到新角度的人,但她不會採用這種方式。「這對我來說感覺很無聊。我看過很多這樣的故事,老實說,它非常枯燥無味。這類論述已經飽和。」

她即將離開可能會改變這一點。她說:「我現在回答不了作為香港人是怎樣的問題,因為我一直在這裡,我沒有與這個地方產生距離。但我即將成為一名常駐倫敦的香港藝術家……也許我會有一種渴望回家的感覺,誰知道我會否開始畫炒牛河呢?」。就目前而言,她仍然無法想像開展「異類化」的生活會是怎麼一回事。

Blythe表示最近的抗爭令她覺得自己的藝術創作有必要更加公開、直接表明立場。她的作品跨越各種媒介:獨立雜誌、禪繞繪本滿佈她的鉛筆畫,一筆一劃力臻完美、「講故事」表演; 她其中一個迷戀的嗜好是「垃圾」,慶祝荒謬並列的日常,她的藝術作品通常鑽研人類生存的浩瀚,但現在多了一份壓迫感,驅使她必須面對自己「生於亂世」。

Blythe續指「這場運動真的讓我確立香港人的身份,從定義上而言……(這種身份)不是由個人物質條件塑造而成,而是由歷史和文化背景形成的集體意識。」

想想看,在過去一星期裡,每天晚上十時正,我的鄰居們都會打開窗戶,高喊:「香港人加油!」,他們的聲音在我的死胡同裡蕩氣迴腸,香港所有地區都在仿效同樣的做法。大家從來沒有為香港人的特質賦予共識,可是我們彼此都心有靈犀。

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。

作為一名自由職業者和全職音樂家,Tomii已經因為示威活動取消了兩場演出,他身邊的朋友們也開始積極計劃移民。Tomii說,就他自己而言,留下的理由比離開的理由多。他會非常想念這座城市、朋友和廣東話。

他說:「我無法否定香港環境對我的影響,我在這裡生活,在這裡長大。」儘管他的音樂並不傾向於「本土主義」,但他作為一名香港音樂家的身份,從他的個性,到廣東話粗口的熱愛,以及粵語無法翻譯的表達方式,都融入了他的血液。

Tomii參加了2014年的雨傘運動,當時支持民主的香港人走上街頭爭取普選,他幾乎不記得自己的經歷。然而,今年夏天,他一直密切關注事態發展,並盡其所能進行抗爭。「他不是站在示威者的最前線,與警察發生衝突,也沒有特別引人注意,但他很高興成為一名『普通的示威者』」。

在這些衝突中,警察的暴力行為惹怒Tomii,他開始在自己的電腦上保存一個文件夾,裡面充滿以警察為主題的短片和gif圖,並記下了日期,這算是一種非官方的檔案。當一位朋友開始收集警方濫用職權的證據,整理成「調查報告」時,他為這項研究提供資料。

Tomii表示由於最近的抗爭活動和緊張的氣氛,感覺好像有更多的人轉投藍調音樂。「即使兩者沒有明確聯繫,藍調也是一種從壓迫中崛起的音樂類型,所以它反映了當今時代的人,包括我自己,都能從音樂中找到慰藉。」

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.”

當晚演出的另一位觀眾是Rocky,他是兩個emo樂隊的負責人,也是一家報紙的前線記者。2014年雨傘運動期間,抗議者佔領了主要街道79天,高呼民主,Rocky為總部位於紐約的一個網站寫了一篇文章,這篇文章後來成為他進入這個行業的契機。他一邊用吉他寫自白歌曲,一邊經營著一間獨立音樂公司,一邊撰寫故事,從一個新聞發佈會奔波到另一個新聞發佈會。

他告訴我:「當事情發生的時候,我想在現場見證,而這份工作讓我做到這點。作為一名記者,我的工作就是盡最大的能力報道真相,並保持批判性」。

近幾個月來,Rocky多次參與衝突。他記得,當抗議者佔領立法會時,他很擔心議事廳裡的年輕人,他們準備好面對任何後果。這在香港是前所未有的。他想:「沒有退路了。」

在PAIN中,Rocky的胳膊肘朝前彎去,隨著音樂猛烈地抖動著他鬆散的瀏海,縱情起舞。他自己的樂隊Wellsaid演奏的數學搖滾讓人回想起上世紀90年代,他們的演出是我看過的最有活力的演出之一。雖然他在工作中只報道香港政治,但這些感人肺腑的歌詞往往更多地與他的生活經歷有關,而不是香港本身的狀況。「身為一個香港人是一件很獨特的事情。這是一種官方權力不承認的集體身份,但與其他任何身份一樣真實和切實。我覺得很少人明白這點。」

但繁忙的抗爭日程意味著他經常精疲力盡,不得不削減音樂創作。他指出,當他這樣做的時候,它會變得「更黑暗沉重」。將抗爭當作新聞事件處理是一項任務,但作為香港人事後作出判斷則是另一項任務。有時候我好像經歷了兩次一樣的事。他說,即使抗議活動結束,對這座城市來說,現在的賭注也更高了。

在這樣的局勢,藝術是一種慰藉,即使只是以便利貼的形式出現在香港各區五顏六色的連儂牆上。Rocky說,他們的存在是為了「將社會運動從物質層面提升到精神層面。」

「它為我們提供了一條出路,讓我們擺脫人們受到傷害和不公平對待的殘酷事實,哪怕只是幾秒鐘也好。這提醒我們,為什麼香港人要開始這場抗爭。」

Taken from HUNGER’s Listen Up issue. Click here for further information or to purchase. 

20 November 2019