April 11th, 2010

Make Some Noise, Hong Kong!

Posted in Asia Pacific, Music, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Outdoor concert on St. Viateur Street in Montreal — something that could never happen in Hong Kong under the current noise regulations

Last month, on a muggy Saturday afternoon, a couple of hundred people gathered in the courtyard of the former Central Married Police Quarters for a taste of something rare in Hong Kong: live outdoor music. Three French-speaking hip hop groups from France, Canada and Belgium took the stage as the crowd in front danced and cheered. But audience members standing further away looked rather less impressed.

Noise complaints had been coming in all afternoon, starting with the sound check, and police had told the concert’s organizers to make sure the volume of music never exceeded 70 decibels. So they muffled the sound, irritating performers and audience members alike. “The ambiance is really hot,” said Canadian DJ Félix-Antoine Leroux as he surveyed the crowd. “It’s just too bad about the sound.”

The hip hop show was the third installment of The Indie Ones, a series of free concerts organized by composer and musician Kung Chi-shing for the Heritage X Art X Design festival. Each show received noise complaints and police orders to turn down the music.

“The police came three or four times during the first one,” said Kung. “Every time they came we turned it down. At the end we weren’t even using a mic for the drum set, but the police still wanted to give us a summons. We had to talk them out of it. The funny thing is that I got government support for the shows. They support outdoor music but don’t help you deal with the noise issues.”

In response, Kung has banded together with several other musicians, concert promoters and music journalists to launch “Make Some Noise,” a campaign they hope will persuade the government to relax its noise restrictions on music performances — an issue that touches on Hong Kong’s support for arts and culture as well as the way it deals with noise pollution.

In recent years, almost every major music event in Hong Kong has been affected by noise complaints. Last October, the multimedia arts festival Clockenflap, which was held in a garden in Cyberport, had enough trouble over noise that its organizers have decided to move most of this year’s edition indoors. “We had noise complaints during the sound check from one person stating that the music was drowning out their TV,” said the festival’s co-director, Mike Hill.

By restricting outdoor music, Hong Kong is losing out on cultural and economic opportunities, says Hamish McKenzie, a journalist who has covered music for several Hong Kong publications. “There’s all sorts of intangible cultural benefits — it makes the city more fun, more vibrant, more exciting, more colourful, more attractive for people who enjoy events that take them outside of their usual comfort zone,” he said, adding that each concert employs a small army of people, including sound engineers, producers, security guards and caterers. “It’s a social good and an economic good,” he said.

For Kung, having a concert outdoors brings music to those who might not otherwise seek it out. Every month, he invites musicians of various genres to play free outdoor shows as part of his Street Music Series, which takes outside the Hong Kong Arts Centre in Wan Chai. “I’m really only interested in doing free outdoor concerts,” he said. “Hong Kong streets are very exciting. The energy is incredible. Last year we did a street performance of opera. Puccini in the middle of Wan Chai — it was an amazing experience.”

For many, though, adding an opera singer’s falsetto to the city’s near-constant din of jackhammers and roaring buses could be hard to take. More than 10,000 noise complaints are made each year, according to the Environmental Protection Department, about 40 percent of which have to do with neighbourhood or domestic noise. For concerts, Hong Kong’s noise ordinance establishes a limit of 10 decibels above the prevailing background noise level.

“What bothers me a lot is that, if a resident doesn’t like the music, they’ll call the police,” said Kung. “It’s an emotional reaction — they just don’t like the music. If there’s construction going on, they wouldn’t call the police, they just accept it as part of Hong Kong life.”

Prolonged exposure to noise pollution can impair hearing, cause stress and increase blood pressure, said Lawal Marafa, a professor of geography at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who is conducting research on Hong Kong’s sound environment. But exactly what constitutes noise is subjective, he said. “It’s a matter of perception. If you listen to reggae, you might love it, but somebody else will say, ‘What the hell is that?’”

“Music is positive and lots of people like it, but nobody likes the sound of a construction drill except the person making money from it,” said Kung. “Noise pollution in Hong Kong is like air pollution — it’s very serious, but we’re not dealing with it enough,” said Kung. “We need to separate what is acceptable noise from unacceptable noise. Once we do that, we can move forward.”

According to the EPD, the noise created by traffic on a busy street is 70 decibels; the noise from a pile driver can reach well over 110 decibels. Construction projects can obtain special permits that exempt them from noise limits for a specific period of time. Kung and McKenzie insist that, given the benefits of outdoor music, concert organizers should be able to apply for a similar kind of exemption.

“One of the hardest things for us is knowing that we have license to do an event but that does not protect us from being shut down if people complain,” said Hill, the Clockenflap organizer. “That is not a sustainable approach, so a noise permit could help with this. However, I doubt if any of the current venues would be able to sustain such a policy, as the residents would protest to every application.”

The government should identify spaces in the city that are ideal for outdoor concerts and make it easier to book them, such as the newly-reclaimed Central waterfront or the future cultural district at West Kowloon, said Kung. He also said the government should streamline the process for hosting an outdoor concert; at the moment, “you have to talk to four different government departments just to arrange one show.”

One concert promoter, Nimal Jayawardena, grew so frustrated with Hong Kong’s bureaucracy that he abandoned the city altogether. From 2003 to 2006, he organized Rockit, an annual music festival that took place in Victoria Park. For its last edition, Jayawardena had to hire noise monitors to make sure the noise levels did not exceed the 80 decibel limit the government imposed. “Our baseline costs were too high, and the baseline costs were, unfortunately, appeasing all of the licencing issues, paying for security, paying for noise monitoring,” he said. “I think in other countries city councils would have provided the venue for free because they know it’s good for them, it promotes their city on a cultural basis, and makes it a lot more appealing for investors in other industries. But we didn’t get that.”

Jayawardena is now organizing the Macau International Music and Art festival. “I don’t have to go through the licencing process in Macau, whereas in Hong Kong, I maybe have to spend six months worrying about it,” he said. “We stopped doing [Rockit] in 2006 because there was just too much red tape and it became too much of a hassle.”

When asked whether he thinks “Make Some Noise” will be successful in changing the government’s attitude towards music, Jayawardena is blunt: “No. Good luck to them for trying but you need a big movement to change legislation.” But Kung says the success of his Street Music Series, which has just won Arts Development Council funding for another year, is proof that there is a growing appetite for outdoor music.

He has won the support of one Wan Chai district councillor, Yolanda Ng Yuen-ting, who is considering ways to bring the series to other parts of Wan Chai. “Even if you don’t have money, you can enjoy music outdoors. On the street, there’s more freedom, it’s more romantic. Anywhere can be a good spot for outdoor music — it just depends on how we communicate with the residents.”


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