Covid-19: Hong Kong’s underground music scene has been hit hard but the show goes online

©Hong Kong Free Press

By Emma Russell

At the sprawling Clearwater Bay Film Studios, local band Smoke in Half Note thundered their post-rock anthems as though in concert, strobes lighting up the three members as they played.

But as the group thrashed out their final notes on Sunday evening, there was no cheering from the crowd or fans screaming for an encore. A director shouted “Cut!” and then there was silence.

Maniac. Photo: Kenneth Tang, @kenneviaphotography.

Jason Kui, Maniac, silhungmo and Instinct of Sight were met with similar responses as they recorded their sets for the TONE Online Music Festival. A virtual event hosted by former indie concert venues This Town Needs and Hidden Agenda, it will be broadcast on October 31 – the second iteration since Covid-19 left the concert world in crisis.

Hong Kong’s underground music scene has been hit hard by restrictions which call for clubs and other venues to shut their doors or operate at half capacity, but has received nothing in the way of government support. So it has been forced to adapt.

Ka. Photo: Kenneth Tang, @kenneviaphotography.

As the fourth Covid wave looms over Hong Kong, musicians and organisers have migrated online to satisfy their own need for community and the public’s desire for music. There’s more streaming than ever before by the city’s underground collectives: Mihn and Yeti Out, who have shown increasing resourcefulness in coping and collaborating. Virtual festivals and new platforms like Stay Home Kids (an Instagram account run by synth star Merry Lamb Lamb and her manager Lung) have sprung up to keep homegrown talent relevant.

They all agree that nothing can replace live music. “The saying goes that you experience music with your skin,” says Joshua Chan, one of the founders of the TONE festival. “It’s about the vibration, the sub-low, it’s about being there… At a gig the audience is part of the performance, it’s always a two-way or multi-way interaction.”

Otomesyn Dream. Photo: Kenneth Tang, @kenneviaphotography.

On the internet, there’s no drinks, no smell of sweat, no feeling of being hot, no vibe either, he says. “That’s irreplaceable.”

But what the digital sphere offers is a place for local musicians to perform, and in some cases it’s given them a much wider audience than ever before. Nearly 100,000 people tuned in for the first TONE festival at the end of May, as it was cross-posted by industry insiders as well as vloggers and influencers outside the scene. “We reached out to a lot of people who had absolutely no idea that Hong Kong had an indie music scene,” Chan explains.

In both festivals they included an eclectic mix of performers, inviting Hong Kong rapper KZ, a Japanese idol girl group called Bubble Virus, singer-songwriter Serrini, the post-rock band Smoke in Half Note and Hong Kong metalcore group Maniac. Jason Ngan, the frontman of Maniac, says the band hadn’t had an opportunity to perform since November 2019 so the TONE festival helped them connect with their fans once more.

In between recordings were interviews with each of the nine acts, introducing the artists and their music, discussing life during the pandemic and their experience of recording for the festival. Ngan worries about the future, asking what changes Covid-19 will bring to the scene. “Now, the venue This Town Needs has closed down because of the virus, we expect less musical events even after the city recovers,” he says. “It is a huge concern for indie musicians.”

The organisers asked everyone to donate what they could for tickets, which ultimately covered the cost of paying the 30-40 people involved in the production a market-rate salary. “The initial idea was to provide opportunities for work,” says Chan. Not just for performers but also for the promoters, technicians and sound engineers – people who had nothing else to do.

Dehumanization Association. Photo: Kenneth Tang, @kenneviaphotography.

Organisers also gave local businesses an opportunity to take part. They hosted the recording sessions in venues that have ranged, over the past two festivals, from record shops to industrial warehouses, a film studio in the New Territories and an old-school Chinese karaoke bar in Yau Ma Tei – complete with padded red walls, hanging lanterns and a gold sparkling sign depicting the bar name 粵雅軒 above the stage.

“[Karaoke bars are] a part of Hong Kong culture,” says Chan. “We wanted to remind people of that, even if it’s not somewhere you’ve been to.”

For their second festival, TONE have gone bigger and better with larger venues, a more expansive production setup and camera teams. “Now that everyone else is doing it, we need to make sure that it’s up a level,” says Chan. “We want people to know that being in the indie scene doesn’t mean that you can’t do things better than the mainstream record labels that have resources. Even without big investors or a space, we can still operate this with the support of our own audiences.”

Lil Ashes. Photo: Somewhere Nowhere Studio.

On the other end of the spectrum is the DIY-styling of Merry Lamb Lamb’s livestreams, which are broadcast on her Instagram platform Stay Home Kids. Since May, with the help of her manager Lung, they have hosted musicians at their studio in Kowloon Bay, creating utopian safe spaces for artists to perform in. Each performer gets a custom-made set that channels the mood of the song.

“A lot of shows are super-boring and so proper,” Merry says. “You have to sit there all still and do your song.” Lung adds: “That’s one-dimensional ….we wanted to make it more interesting and dynamic for people. Even though you’re just watching it in front of your screen, you can feel the vibe.”

On a set clad in purple fur, Merry live-streams her own synth tracks, crooning into a microphone on a neon pink stand about love and loss. Singing in both Cantonese and English her lo-fi electronic sound is melancholic and confessional but self-aware and ironically upbeat at the same time. “When I try to write or compose a song, I try to have two sides of me built in,” she says. “Cantonese sounds more poetic because the meanings are deep and preserved in a way. But English is more straightforward.”

Mouse FX . Photo: Somewhere Nowhere Studio.

Since their first livestream the duo have invited all kinds of artists to perform, including Yuki Lovey, who sang Little Galaxy from a tented room with twinkling fairy lights. Mouse FX played his Cantonese-inspired reggae track Mr. Silly in a space inspired by the name of his song, with red and white mushrooms and child-like sketches adorning the stage. And Sony-signed band Lil’ Ashes, who recreate Cantonese children’s songs with their folksy pop style, sang on a wooden stage decorated in anime posters, soft toys and wires.

“I try to incorporate as many different kinds of people as I can,” says Merry, “because I feel like Hongkongers don’t know there’s a lot of talented people here and so many types of music going on.”

Lung actually thinks the pandemic will be good for Hong Kong musicians, who have been forced to slow down and take a moment to reflect — Merry is proof of this, he says. She’s currently writing an EP that’s a soundtrack to the loneliness she’s felt during a period of social distancing. “I’m part of the history of 2020,” she explains, “so I’m trying to record what I see and feel about it.”

Since leaving Toronto, where her life was much slower, quiet and full of nature, Merry hasn’t had time to catch her breath in Hong Kong. The forced stop has been refreshing, allowing her to lean into the quiet side of her personality and the solitude that inspired her music to begin with.

The people behind multidisciplinary creative collective Mihn also believe there are silver linings to the pandemic. “There has been more time for creatives to meet and get to know each other outside the fast-paced, hyper-productive norm of Hong Kong,” says one of the co-founders of Mihn who did not wish to be named, as the club seeks to be “faceless.”

Founded in June 2018 by a 15-person group of artists, musicians and creatives, Mihn aims to bring people together through electronic music and cultural activities. It’s a safe space for all races, genders and sexual identities to feel welcome and be free from harassment and discrimination.

When coronavirus halted travel and temporarily shuttered the club in April, they were forced to look to Hong Kong’s creative scene for support and inspiration. “For the time being we can no longer book international or even regional DJs to the club, which was a staple of our programming before the pandemic,” the co-founder says. “This encouraged us to look inwards to the community and build relationships with other local collectives.”

Photo: Kenneth Tang, @kenneviaphotography.

“We’ve seen a boost in emerging talent, while more experienced DJs have had time to mentor new players,” he adds. Their lineup for the reopening in September-October has showcased a much wider range of musical genres and collectives from Hong Kong, many of whom they might not have found or taken a risk on were it not for the pandemic. But all the artists have been owning the coveted Friday and Saturday night spaces.

Mihn (which the club prefers to write as 宀, a Chinese radical) has been active online too, creating video stories that celebrate Hong Kong’s grassroots creative spaces such as White Noise Record Store in Sham Shui Po and Mosses Bookstore in Wanchai. Also launching a series called “宀 selection”on their Instagram account, which sees Hong Kong DJs digging into their crates to share their favourite vinyl records with the community.

Klasse Wrecks label Founder and 宀resident Mr. Ho kicked it off with a selection of three vinyls that are best played slow at 33rpm instead of 45rpm. A few weeks later, DJ and 宀’s bar manager Misty Penguin introduced the world of “white label” records — unofficial remixes of pop tracks that have no information on the artist, label or collaborators featured. Most recently, Italy-born Guido Balboa chose a selection of Italo Disco tracks he’s sourced in Hong Kong’s second-hand markets.

Daniel – camera crew. Photo: Kenneth Tang, @kenneviaphotography.

In September, at an industrial warehouse in Lai Chi Kok, two of Mihn’s co-founders turned up at an electronic recording session with Yeti Out and Likewise to promote the debut album of the post-punk band 南洋派對 N.Y.P.D titled 南洋派對 “Nanyang Party.” It’s been produced and released by the record label Silk Road Sounds, that’s run by Yeti Out co-founder Arthur Bray — a London-born Asia-based creative collective that he runs with his twin brother Tom, who lives in Shanghai.

Before the pandemic, Yeti Out had never connected with Mihn but now they have a monthly night at the club. “Covid definitely forces you to change plans and switch up modes of operations,” says Bray. “At first you get hit and you’re a bit shook about the whole thing but then you do the best you can. The show can’t stop, right? You just look at the elements that make up the brand or your work and see how it can be segmented into other parts of your life. We can’t do shows or bookings but we can continue that energy in a podcast,” he says.

In an eight-week collaboration with Nike called Lost Signal, they curated a roster of artists who contributed a guest mix in a series of podcasts that played on the IRL vs. URL period we are currently experiencing. “I think it’s such an interesting time for online content,” says Bray. “If you look at club culture and the music landscape, only a certain amount of people were doing online radio but when you take away events and live experiences, the only thing these people know how to transfer their skills over is to online streaming. It’s evened out the whole platform a bit because everyone’s a bedroom DJ now.”

It’s all proof that music is still being made despite concerts being cancelled, nightclubs operating with reduced capacity and opening hours, and music venues closing. No one in the underground music scene in Hong Kong believes, like the tech industry seems to, that online is the future for culture. But for now it offers a space for musicians to perform, collaborate and keep people sane – the perfect antidote to the stresses of the current climate. Plus, it’s broadening the reaches of certain genres beyond their usual audiences.

“When things go back to normal, I think we’re going to see a whole new wave of people that will enjoy music for a different aspect,” says Bray. “There’s going to be a lot of people that listen to techno and drum and bass that don’t necessarily want to listen to it at 4am. Those people will be listening to it in their homes, as they have been for the last eight to nine months.”

Minh Club. Photo: Jake S. Thomas.