Sweating in the bright Mediterranean sun, Glenn Eugen Ellingsen surveyed a little bit of Hong Kong in Venice. “It’s meant to be very organic,” he said, pointing to an array of wood planters, metal racks, video screens and exposed electrical wires.
Ellingsen is one of the founders of HK Farm, an urban agriculture project on the roof of a factory building in Kwun Tong, and he had spent the week sourcing herbs and soil in order to recreate his farm in Venice. He turned his gaze over to a half-dozen wood planters brimming with rosemary, basil and sage. “They’re similar to what we have on the roof in Hong Kong, just a bit narrower,” he said.
It was the opening day of the Hong Kong pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s most prestigious showcase of architecture and urban design, which runs until Novermber 25. In true Hong Kong style, workers were scrambling to finish the exhibition on time, arranging architectural models and painting display cases green — the same colour as Hong Kong’s street market stalls.
The choice of colour was no accident. This year’s biennale is dedicated to “Common Ground,” a theme meant to shift focus away from big-name architects to more grassroots initiatives. Hong Kong’s exhibition, “Inter Cities/Intra Cities: Ghostwriting the Future,” focuses on the future of Kowloon East, a vast swath of city that is home to 600,000 people, Hong Kong’s last remaining factories, a burgeoning office hub and the city’s biggest creative cluster, with hundreds of musicians, designers and artists.
It also includes the former Kai Tak Airport, which is now being redeveloped with housing, offices and a huge cruise ship terminal and exhibition centre designed by Sir Norman Foster. The airport’s redevelopment will be used as a catalyst to transform Kowloon East into the so-called “CBD2” — a new office district that will provide an alternative to the high-priced business hubs of Hong Kong Island.
This story was originally published in the November 2010 edition of Muse, the new-defunct review of Hong Kong arts and culture.
It was a hot night when I sat inside the cluttered studios of the pirate radio station FM 101, six floors up inside an industrial building in Kwun Tong. I was speaking to one of the station’s founders, a rock musician named Leung Wing-lai, when the doorbell rang. Leung excused himself to go open the door. Three people walked in, including Ah Kok Wong, a composer who has been working with Kwun Tong’s artists to lobby the government against a new policy that made it easier for the owners of industrial units to convert their space into offices or hotels.
Wong told me about an Arts Development Council survey that was meant to determine exactly how many artists, musicians and other creative people are making use of industrial space. Unfortunately, few artists received the survey, so Wong and several others had taken to distributing it themselves. “I have my own studio, a band room and a studio used by the radio station, and we didn’t get copies at any of these places,” he said. If not enough artists completed the survey, he told me, the government would have no clear picture of the thousands of creative people that work in low-rent, run-down industrial buildings, and its new industrial “revitalization” policy would lead to unchecked property speculation, pushing out a huge chunk of Hong Kong’s artists, musicians and cultural organizations.
Leung returned to his seat. We talked about FM 101, which focuses mainly on arts, culture and music and was set up to protest against regulations that make it nearly impossible for a non-profit, community-based radio station to get a broadcast licence. A recent crackdown on the station’s fundraising efforts has forced its volunteers to pay for its operating expenses out of their own pocket, which has only been possible because the studio’s rent is low. “Without this kind of space, where would we go?” he asked.
Every so often a musician comes along that captures the mood of a city, or at least a certain subset of its time and population. George Gershwin’s compositions embodied the bittersweet optimism of the striver’s New York; more recently, LCD Soundsystem evokes the disaffection felt in the gentrified, Bloomberg-era city. And what better represents the angst and aimlessness of 1990s Montreal than the melodramatic nihilism of Godspeed You Black Emperor?
If anyone can be said to capture the zeigeist of Hong Kong in the early 2010s, it’s Choi Sai-ho, the experimental electronic musician and video artist who I profiled last year for CNNGo. His frenetic music feeds on Hong Kong’s relentless entrepreneurial drive, something that created created remarkable wealth in the 1970s and 80s but which lost its purpose after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997. Hong Kong today is a hamster in a cage, spinning furiously with nowhere to go. The desire for constant advancement and enrichment has been perverted into a kind of civic OCD that, if left untreated, could leave the city utterly debilitated. Already the signs are there, including a yawning wealth gap that is growing larger every year.
The Rialto Theatre is located on the corner of rue Bernard and avenue du Parc, in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. It was built in 1924 and was one of thousands of ornate movie theatres built in North America at the turn of the century, at a time when films were first entering the mainstream.
These theatres were called movie palaces — a fitting title as they were defined by an over-the-top ornamental aesthetic that evoked old world grandeur. Think limestone balustrades, wrought iron railings, gold molding and red velvet curtains. Most of the movie palaces in the 1920s were built to pay homage to architectural monuments in Europe. The Rialto itself was styled after the Paris Opera House by Montreal architect Joseph Raoul Gariepy. It has been designated as a heritage site by all three levels of government and is considered by its residents to be as much a part of the fabric of Mile End as its bagel shops, cafes and madcap personalities.
The Rialto has stood mostly vacant for the past few years, while its owner, Elias Kalogeras, looked for buyers. Kalogeras had owned the theatre since 1983. During this time it underwent a number of transformations. He purchased the Rialto with hopes of turning it into a mini-Eaton Centre, but the Ministry of Culture intervened and his plans never materialized. Since then it has been a nightclub, a concert venue, a repertory theatre, and a steakhouse. Kalogeras was confronted with many of the problems owners of defunct movie palaces faced: the difficulty of successfully filling such a cavernous space while maintaining the charm of a historic building and keeping it updated to the needs of contemporary society.
These days, the sweet ballads of Cantopop might seem like they are smothering whatever creative spark Hong Kong’s music scene might have, but that wasn’t always the case. In the 1970s, Cantonese pop was populist, exciting and avant-garde. Until then, most of the popular music recorded in Hong Kong was in Mandarin. It was the rise of the local TV and film industry to make Cantonese music for the masses, often in the form of theme songs that ran during the opening credits (a tradition that still exists on television today).
Ask anyone who defined the sound and ethos of 1970s Cantopop and Sam Hui‘s name will invariably crop up. Raised in So Uk, a public housing estate, Hui sang humourously about everyday Hong Kong life in a vernacular language that people could easily identify with. (His song about the 1960s water shortage is a classic.) He was also an actor, appearing two dozen movies between 1973 and 2000.
The opening sequence of the 1976 comedy The Private Eyes is a great montage of Hong Kong street scenes, accompanied by a song by Hui with the usual topical references to Hong Kong life and culture. There’s a funny English version, but it’s meaningless — all of the local commentary has been removed.
Last night I attended Time Out magazine’s showcase of Hong Kong indie bands and my ears are still ringing. There weren’t many surprises — A Roller Control was excellent as usual, as was Chochukmo — with one exception: Choi Sai Ho, a one-man audio-visual electronic act whose frenetic music and jittery on-stage personality embody Hong Kong more than any other act I’ve seen.
Choi, dressed in a white button-down shirt, jumped wildly around on stage like a Hong Kong office worker unleashed from the burdens of his day job — awkward but endearing. Several songs were complemented by videos in which the features of Hong Kong’s cityscape — its trams, anonymous apartment towers and highways — jerk around in tune to the music. One representative piece is “Violin Cityscape” for which Choi plays ordinary, acoustic violin against looped electronic sounds. In another video, “The Educators,” Choi reduces Hong Kong to a maddening abstraction. “Weird Mind,” meanwhile, takes a (relatively) more conventional approach to the same themes.
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.”
Like many people in Hong Kong, I first heard about Red Noon through a YouTube video that showed them rocking out on their iPhones in the MTR. At first I thought it was a gimmick, something like the iPhone orchestras that have become popular lately, but later, after I met the band, they explained that it was actually part of their overall schtick. While they spend as much time in the studio and on stage as any other band, Red Noon also like to go in public and play for strangers — not as buskers who stand on a streetcorner waiting for an audience, but as travelling musicians who actively seek listeners.
Last November, I followed Red Noon as they wandered around the pedestrian shopping district of Tsuen Wan, not far from their band room. They approached people with a rather ambiguous greeting — “Would you like us to play you a song?” — and their audience was usually sceptical, if not downright apprehensive, as they started playing. But Red Noon’s songs are catchy and accessible; after 30 seconds of listening the audience would usually give in and start dancing to the beat.
Franco-Algonquin hip hop is the last thing I expected to encounter in Hong Kong, but that’s exactly what I heard this past weekend at the former Central Married Police Quarters, which has suddenly become the most interesting cultural space in town. Over the past month, the Heritage X Art X Design festival and the Indie Ones series of concerts have used the space to great effect, transforming its concrete courtyard into a fake lawn (in contrast to the beach created by November’s Detour festival) set in front of a bamboo stage illuminated by red market lamps.
Samian is the son of a French-Canadian father and an Algonquin mother; he grew up on a native reserve in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, about 800 kilometres northwest of Montreal. He started rapping when he was a teenager, first in French, and later — after he met the influential hip hop crew Loco Locass — in Algonquin.
Samian took the stage on Saturday in a performance that was energetic but marred by poor sound, which was mainly because the organizers had to muffle the vocals after the police got a slew of noise complaints from nearby luxury apartment towers. (“At least in Quebec we have until 10pm before we have to keep quiet,” Samian’s DJ said to me after the show.) The crowd responded enthusiastically even though most of the people there didn’t speak French.
I’m a great fan of Jean Leloup not only because we share a name (though his is made up and mine is real) or because he lived near me and I used to see him on the street every other day. I like him because he’s probably the strangest, most brilliant musician to have ever performed in Quebec.
The video for one of his earliest songs, “Isabelle (J’te déteste)” pokes fun at Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal New Wave film, À bout de souffle, with some great scenes of Montreal and New York in 1991. It also opens with a fantastic cameo by Julien Poulin, the actor who became famous by playing Elvis Gratton.
Last week, I posted a video by Thomas Lee in which he asked passers-by on Sai Yeung Choi Street where they would go if they could open a door to anywhere. Now he’s back with another great video, this time a (well-subtitled) Cantonese-language rap by MC Yan, whom you might remember as the founder of Radio Dada and one of the first Chinese rappers.
I helped produce this video (though I can’t claim much credit — after introducing him to MC Yan and participating in a brainstorming session, nearly all of the work was done by Thomas). What struck me from the beginning was how passionate MC Yan is about Hong Kong, despite the cynicism that defines his lyrics. He’s genuinely fascinated by this place, rooted to it not only by birth but by a desire to improve it, and the way he expresses that is through unrelenting criticism of Hong Kong’s government and leaders.
In the video, he takes us on a tour of three important parts of Hong Kong — Causeway Bay, Central and West Kowloon — drawing inspiration from the social, political and cultural geography of each.
Thanks to Montréal Multiple, an excellent blog about multiethnic Montreal written by two La Presse journalists, I came across this video video for L’oubli, the new single off of Dramatik’s new album La Boîte Noire. Dramatik, who suffered a childhood as a rest-avec — a modern-day house slave — in Haiti, raps about Montreal North, the borough that was wracked by riots last year after police shot and killed a young teenager, Fredy Villaneuva. The song’s refrain says it all: “Did you forget that we lived here?”
I liked this song when I first heard it on CBC Radio 3, but when I saw its music video, I liked it even more. “Sweet Sixteen” by Think About Life is light, ironic dance-pop, and the video is similarly fun, especially in the stylized way it reflects the (hipster) Montreal landscape.
First there’s the giant “Ouvert 24 Hrs” sign in the background of the opening scene’s diner, then a poster-clad hydro pole set against a background video of a distinctly Montreal park (look at the benches!), a passing Hassid (who later makes an appearance at the final dance party) and, later, a cameo by Tong, a waiter at La Maison VIP, one of Chinatown’s best late-night eateries. I especially appreciate the detailed rendition of a Montreal bus, right down to the yellow stop-request wire and blue seats.