Hong Kong's underground venue Hidden Agenda refuses to close
The government wants to close Hidden Agenda -- an underground music venue operating in a Kwun Tong factory building. Hidden Agenda’s management refuses to kowtow.
Hong Kong’s Lands Department issued an ultimatum two weeks ago ordering the venue to cease commercial activities by June 21, after which the government will conduct an inspection to verify compliance.
“We’re booked solid through December,” says manager Kimi Lam.
Lam says she’s not stopping shows unless the government forces the decision.
Hidden Agenda is concealed in an industrial neighborhood, tucked into a dilapidated block, 15 minutes' walk from Ngau Tau Kok MTR station. Concertgoers enter through a back alley, and then ride a rusted freight elevator to the sixth floor.
Last weekend featured German-Japanese electro-pop duo Pitchtuner, a crowd of more than 60 hipsters and a fridge stocked with cheap beer. Past acts have included American post-rockers Caspian, prominent Beijing band Queen Sea Big Shark, and a slew of obscure indie acts from China, Hong Kong and abroad. Audiences vary from three to 300 spectators.
Hidden Agenda’s management believes its resistance could help redefine an industrial building policy undermining local artists and musicians who rely on low-rent industrial spaces.
Lawyers have already volunteered to help. Activist Wong Ah-Kok says they will argue that music is part of industry, thus fitting with the building’s original industrial purpose.
“That’s going to be a very long argument,” Wong says. He hopes it buys time at least until January, when the venue’s lease expires.
Wong is a spokesman for the Revitalization Independence Partnership. The organization champions cultural reuse of industrial buildings. He’s also a musician and rents a factory space one floor below Hidden Agenda for band practice.
Hong Kong’s industrial neighborhoods are grimy vestiges of the city’s past life as a manufacturing hub. The districts became hotbeds for grassroots art and culture in recent years: Kwun Tong and Ngau Tau Kok (musician/band rooms), San Po Kong and Tai Kok Tsui (performance artist studios) Fotan (visual artists studios) all exhibited similar reincarnations.
Burgeoning creative communities are great for the city’s cultural aspirations, but many industrial tenants are breaking the law. The Lands Department set its sights on Hidden Agenda early this year.
“The District Lands Office received a complaint about unauthorized use at the subject premises in late February --after investigation, it was found that the premises had been used for musical performance and live music venue purposes,” says Teresa Sair, a spokeswoman for the department.
Since "art and music" are not stipulated in the lease, Sair says Hidden Agenda is violating its contractual obligations and must jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops, with the Lands Department acting as the landlord, to “regularize” the breach. The venue must seek permission from the Town Planning Board, apply for a waiver, and pay a fee.
Wong says the waiver fee could cost a minimum HK$120,000 per year. Hidden Agenda couldn’t afford that sum, he says. Even if the venue could pay, Sair says the Lands Department couldn’t guarantee any application would be approved. She says the department has not received any waiver applications from other artists or musicians renting industrial spaces.
“There’s a lot of people that come to us with good intentions and tell us how to trick the Lands Department when they come for the second inspection, how we could tell them that we’re just a warehouse and we’re not a live house,” Wong says.
“Denial is perhaps the easiest way for us. They could finish the inspection and close the file, and (Hidden Agenda) could still run quietly. But the reality is that we still have this policy above us and that’s not going to change if we deny this issue. So we think that with so many help and supporters, we can launch a large-scale movement to counter this policy.”
Wong and other Kwun Tong activists established the Revitalization Independence Partnership in 2010 after Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s 2009 policy address outlined new tax incentives for building owners to convert industrial properties to high-end commercial use (which could include demolition to make way for new office buildings or hotels).
“After the revitalization policy, (Hidden Agenda’s) previous landlord says he couldn’t rent anymore -- he sold the place, and that’s when we realized that the whole revitalization plan is going to destroy the scene,” Wong says.
About 80 percent of Hong Kong’s indie bands are now based in Kwun Tong factory buildings. Wong estimates that Kwun Tong includes 330 industrial buildings, with two or three bands renting factory space for practice and storage in each building, though only 200 of the bands might actively perform in Hong Kong.
Local musicians didn’t occupy so many industrial spaces until the new millennium, he says. Wong can remember at least three live houses in industrial districts during the past ten years: Kwun Tong had two prior industrial live houses, and San Po Kong had another. All have since closed.
Hidden Agenda first opened in April 2009 when a group of music lovers converted a band practice room into a venue. When the landlord terminated their lease, they found a new factory building easily.
“Since the SARS incident, there have been so many vacancies in the buildings that landlords have an open mind to (musicians), and give them a long lease,” he says. “So far it’s been good. And since we have so much demand for these relatively cheap places, landlords will contact musicians directly.”
Anxiety is mounting among the musicians and artists renting relatively cheap and spacious factories. The Hong Kong Arts Development Council surveyed such industrial-art tenants after the revitalization policy went into effect. The results are available online.
Wong says that Lands Department visits to artist studios have increased recently. Department officials have inspected many of his friends’ studios and stopped by his equipment storage room three months ago to “investigate a complaint” and take photographs.
Hidden Agenda’s manager worries that the venue’s pending inspection could spell trouble for Kwun Tong’s music community. “If the government can close us, then they can close all of the band practice rooms,” Lam says. “If practice rooms get kicked out, they might not be loud enough to tell everyone, but we have that power, so we must speak out.”
Hidden Agenda: 6/F, Ko Leung Industrial Building, 25 Tai Yip St., Kwun Tong, Hong Kong; Friday - Saturday 7:30 p.m.-midnight., Sunday 4 p.m.-10 p.m.; www.hiddenagendahk.com ; Facebook.