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A New Community for Hong Kong’s Underground Music Scene

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On the level of underground music, Hong Kong has long struggled to maintain a consistent identity. The last year has been especially tough, as long-running venues like Hidden Agenda, a stalwart rock dive that bounced around several locations on the industrial fringes of the city, was finally shut down for good last October (though it re-opened under a new name in June), and XXX, one of the only nightclubs in the city where you could go to hear something other than currently charting Trap and EDM, ended its seven-year run in January.

Hong Kong newspaper SCMP‘s obit for XXX gives a sense of what those promoting underground music in Hong Kong are generally up against:

The club faced particular opposition from the DAB (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong – a pro-Beijing political party), which went as far as posting flyers opposing the nightspot’s licence applications in the districts they were operating in.

Famous for its eclecticism, with musical nights that try to simultaneously appeal to contrasting groups of people, and with everything from classical music nights to movie nights to art exhibitions to design competitions, XXX managed to become one of Hong Kong’s best-known clubs while never officially being a club: the impenetrability and cost of Hong Kong’s entertainment licensing system mean that it has always been run as a private venue.

Nevertheless, there remain a few labels and individuals in Hong Kong dedicated to creating a community around alternative music and culture, and few of them are as busy as Gavin Wong. Personally speaking, I’ve been following streaming radio station Hong Kong Community Radio (HKCR) for quite a while, as well as the blog Absurd Creation and related label Absurd TRAX, which tend to come up whenever I ask anyone who knows about what’s happening in Hong Kong at the moment. I cold-called these entities, and it turns out Gavin is the point person for all of them.

As HKCR bridges with other similar projects in Shanghai and elsewhere in Asia, and Absurd TRAX builds its fledgling catalog with both digital and physical releases, Gavin is doubling down on the community aspect of his various operations, looking to build a vital, offline, grassroots scene in a place where it’s historically been pretty hard to do so. Later this month he begins an offline exchange program with Shanghai’s ALL club, which will help cross-pollinate what he and his cohort are doing in a city otherwise dominated in the popular imagination by Bruce Lee, gaudy Cantopop and banker bros.

Here’s Gavin on the alternative community that he’s trying to build:

RADII: When did HKCR start? Who all is behind it?

Gavin Wong: We started out around December 2016. Nowadays it’s mostly me and Davy Law running it on a daily basis, and together we fund the station out of our own pocket. We do get help from friends to volunteer with stuff like artwork and video shooting, operation and so on. None of us work in here full time.

What is the concept behind what you do? What is the main format?

I really liked the idea of having a virtual international community via the medium of radio, and we can make cultural exchange freely and etc. I used to go on [livestreaming channel] SPF420 a lot, and also NON STOP POP on [London-based internet radio station] NTS. I guess those inspired me.

Plus I just felt that local artists needed some tools and collaborative effort to get some visibility in the international scene. It’s kinda a self help tool.

There were some agendas we set out in the beginning — the local scene here was arguably even more fragmented than ever, the prevailing trend was individualism because of social media making information very decentralized. So we hope to organically bring together artists and work together to build something culturally valuable.

The main format is livestreaming on Facebook. It wasn’t really a conscious decision from the beginning, mostly because we couldn’t afford a web developer to build a proper website with audio streaming and back-end, and Facebook Live had just come around, so we tried that. The visual aspect of the livestreaming changed the game of net radio, I think we should embrace it more.

Where is your audience, and how do you attempt to get at them over different platforms, eg Facebook, Mixcloud etc?

Platform-wise, again, mostly Facebook right now, but since Facebook has an aging user base and ever worsening algorithm favoring towards corporates, our outreach feels less and less organic. We are also on other platforms, such as YouTube and Instagram. Geographically our audience are everywhere.

But on a side note, I think that aside from our online presence, the coming phase is to build our offline identity urgently. We’re starting to run mini-events in a new studio we moved into recently, like artist showcases and community workshops.

I feel that building an offline presence is very important for us to become a real physical cultural entity. We really appreciate the freedom of net radio, but there’s something authentic with the element of connectivity if you compare a live radio show being made real-time at a specific location and time, versus a pre-recorded mix or podcast just being programmed to be aired.

Secondly, having a physical form opens more ways for us to sustain ourselves better. Part of the plan is to turn it into a record shop/info shop, where everyone can walk in during opening hours.

By the way — this is all made possible by the ACO, the management of the Foo Tak building, who gave us a lot of autonomy to do many things we want at a very affordable rent, so big shout out to them.

Can you name a few artists, labels, promoters, or venues that make the HK creative scene right now?

I really rate Kelvin T, not because he’s my label mate, but he’s just productive af. Kids like him are rare these days.

I’ve just been really into Nerve’s performance too lately. He happens to run his space in the same building. So we always talk to each other. Also shoutout to Anna.

Not much going on with venues to be honest. We’re doing gigs in my friend’s place in a remote industrial building and that’s about it.

What qualities do you think set the music being made in Hong Kong now apart from other major cities in Asia or around the world?

The language, Cantonese, sounds sophisticated and interesting in its own way IMO.

I’m kinda not very into rehashing the old HK “golden age” ’80s sound, but it is a wealth of cultural assets that speaks to many Chinese-speaking listeners because of how widely spread it was back in the ’80s.

The fact that vaporwave/future funk nights in HK are so popular and super penetrating, even though it has next to no relevance in the mainstream media, is sheerly because of the embedded cultural references, even though weirdly it’s originated from a Western meme culture.

What is the “community” aspect of HKCR? How are you trying to build and sustain a community? You talk in your mission statement about including marginalized people or groups under your umbrella — can you talk about how you reach out to these people?

Yea, we really wanna make it clear that the station is inclusive. I was pretty much a scene outsider when I first started this, so I kinda wanna make sure someone like me wouldn’t feel unaccepted even if you don’t know anyone.

It’s kinda reacting to the toxic underground vibe I feel back when we started, these issues of misogynistic and unfriendly environments that weren’t very well discussed. I can’t say I wasn’t influenced by identity politics back then.

I’m always looking away from the pure hedonism part of music as an entertainment, as I wanted to use this medium as a tool to make social changes. When my friends used to do pirate radio they had clear political agenda. I want to make HKCR a continuation of that, but in a way it does not have to be a vehicle for a certain set of political values. Rather the functionality and democracy of bringing together people to form a listening culture may already be enough to be a force of resistance.

It’s probably too idealistic when I think about it now. We’re still working on it, to actually implement that rather than just making slogans about it. We’ve all seen what happened to Radar when radio can’t uphold its integrity of community spirit.

You also say that your’e “looking to connect to the creative scenes worldwide” — what scenes are on your radar? What cities or online platforms have you connected with to create “cultural and creative exchanges”?

We’re actively seeking collaborations internationally. There were talks between all the community radios — Shanghai, Taipei, Seoul, even Berlin. Most frequently with Seoul as we did cross-promo streams every once a while.

I think after conversing with all of them, it’s a common belief that a collaborative effort can be something beautiful and represents an actual change, without relying on corporate big presses or institutions. The problem with institutions is that they tend to present our culture in a very marketed and calculated way. I wanna presents things more organically.

It’s true that the scene is still predominantly Western and, to paraphrase Tavi [Lee, co-founder of Shanghai label Genome 6.66mbp] in her recent interview, the Western market is stagnating so they are hyping and fetishizing the East now, cause it seems to yield a bigger marginal return, which could be a driving force of our own development on the surface level, but also makes me question how much we gain from it other than just promoting their own agenda of things.

So I think via this project it’s good that we start building infrastructures and this dynamic ourselves as underground kids within this region, it would be kind of naive to think that it will ‘turn the tide’, but at the very least we wanna be owning our voices and be narrating our own culture. But tbh we’re still struggling to do well enough to be self sufficient, so there’s still a long long way to go.

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What are you working on now? Anything coming up that you want to promote, or anything else you want to add in general?

We are about to hit our second birthday later this year so we’re working on it to make an event to happen, it’s gonna be vital as we want it to be our first annual fundraiser too.

You’re also a cofounder of two related projects, Absurd Creation and Absurd Trax? Who all is behind them? What was the motivation to start a standalone label?

Absurd Creation is a blog I started back in 2015 with two friends of mine, Sam Chan and Danny Sum. We have different interests in music, but we all write about music together, and run around to do interviews with artists, make playlists and stuff like that. We kind of reference Tiny Mix Tapes a lot.

We started making events under the AC name in 2016, and we felt making events can be informative, [a form of] outreach to more people than just writing about it.

 

Absurd TRAX split out from AC when I noticed that I had run enough gigs, and I started to feel that forming a label/crew seemed necessary. AT is more of a reflection of my personal side that involves seeking like-minded people and work together to put out stuff, doing performances and so on.

So for me it’s necessary to separate the two sides, as I still want AC to remain as a commentator of the scene. I feel such a character is still very necessary, even though everyone is saying music journalism is a dead industry. At AC we are definitely more pluralistic.

With HKCR it seems your focus is more on electronic music producers/DJs, and the releases on Absurd TRAX have the same vibe, but in the editorial side of Absurd Creation you cover HK’s indie rock scene, including a few bands/releases from Guangzhou’s Qiii Snacks. Is there much overlap between the rock & electronic scenes in HK? What other indie labels are you following or connected with in the region, especially on the Mainland PRC side?

Mostly it’s because Sam is the main editor in AC since I moved to focus on the A&R and releases via the TRAX series more. At the same time, I don’t feel the need to completely detach them, there’s no hiding that we like a lot of different stuff together, and I feel more liberated to keep them all mashed up this way. We don’t feel the need to market ourselves as some kind of specialist anyways. I feel better if the project can serve as a little community revolving around our friends, regardless of their music.

Last December we did throw an all-day event that is kinda our own little festival, featuring  turntablism, experimental, noise, singer, club, drone, installations, all in one place. Among the limited attendees, the feedback was really good actually. So we are very keen to be working on more projects like that soon.

As for the scene in general, I can’t speak for everyone, but my observation is that in the real world they don’t really overlap that much. There’s no lack of electronic musicians who play in bands and vice versa, but maybe it’s kinda a venue thing where no places can vessel both of them at the same place. XXX and Focal Fair used to allow bands to play in the early evening and DJs to play later occasionally (depending on the promoter), but both have been shut down.

Eternal Dragonz x Absurd TRAX at XXX, Hong Kong, 2017. L to R: x/o, Eric Hu, Fotan Laiki, Kelvin T, Anna (Cooking Bitchess) — Photo by Michelle Cho

I already asked you to name-check some artists in the HKCR questions, but can you talk a bit more about the HK artists you’ve featured on Absurd TRAX?

They are both long term members of the “crew.” Kelvin is a very young producer born and raised in HK. I met him online actually, when I started a thread about making HKCR, and very soon after I saw his name again on the first Genome compilation. I immediately invited him to join us in the events I hosted at XXX. Small world haha.

I knew Charlisha [Leung, aka ASJ] via our friend Sonia Calico from Taiwan, who I invited to play previously. She had released on Sonia’s label UnderU. After hearing from Sonia that she was about to return to HK, I thought I should ask her to join our lineup too. She became a member of the “crew” since then. There’s less generation gap between me and Charlisha, cause we are the same age, haha.

Nin aka Tsalal is the eldest in the crew, he’s also probably the most musically knowledgeable and probably the best DJ among us. Also many friends came around to play with us, like Alexmalism, Anna [Cooking Bitchess], Fotan Laiki, Nerve, and so on.

There is also some Taipei influence on the label, such as the cassette you released for Meuko Meuko in January and a Sonia Calico remix on the ASJ release. Is there much cross-pollination between HK & Taipei scenes? Would you say they have anything culturally in common?

I think we do. HK indie has always been very much influenced by the Taiwan scene, since the last decade. We’re brothers. As for ourselves, we already invited [Taipei artists] Scattered Purgatory, Scintii, Meuko Meuko, Sonia, and Forests. With Meuko and Sonia, aside from the fact that they were our previous guests, I just feel that we share a lot of musical influence and, more importantly, similar visions in terms of understanding of the music and the relationship with it. In particular Sonia, as I always admire what she was doing with her label [UnderU] and Beatmakers [workshop] series.

Why did you choose the cassette format for Meuko Meuko’s release? Are you planning any other physical releases?

I just found working on a physical release is fun, plus it will be a nice feeling to see your tape on the shelf of your favorite local record store.

Originally, I plan to make vinyl copies for Meuko, but in the end I’m not in the best financial position to do it. I asked my friend Davy Law who runs HKCR with me to help print this reissue, since he has a high-speed tape duplication desk he invested in for his label Neoncity Records. I’m certainly making more physical releases in the future — in fact ASJ’s LP will have a tape version very soon!

Link salad: HKCR Facebook/Mixcloud/YouTube/IG; Absurd Creation blog; Absurd TRAX Bandcamp/Soundcloud

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Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.

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