Make some noise, Hong Kong. Musicians rally to be heard
There is a legend in Hong Kong about an outdoor concert. To combat complaints from nearby residents about the expected noise level ahead of a performance at an outdoor sports stadium, officials proposed giving the audience gloves to mute their applause and headphones that would replace the speaker set up. As a reaction, the gig was cancelled and since then big outdoor events have been few and far between.
Regardless of the accuracy of this legend, at its core is the issue -- Hong Kong has a Noise Control Ordinance that can restrict outdoor music events to a decibel level of 70. This may surprise many residents, since elsewhere the sound of drills and construction dominates the landscape. As a point of reference, the average household vacuum cleaner reaches 80 db.
This has been the official Acceptable Noise Level, or aptly shortened ANL (say it fast), for decades. What is new is the campaign to change it.
After a series of embarrassments blighted Kung Chi-Shing’s concert series the Indie Ones last month, the experimental artist and a number of young music champions have spearheaded a movement called Make Some Noise, Hong Kong.
The group aims to lobby the government by early next year to grant sound permits to concert organizers on an event-to-event basis. The permits, which would be available by application, would relax noise restrictions on the outdoor events for a given period of hours.
Make Some Noise began as a Facebook group on March 25, and has gained impressive traction on the social networking site. Membership climbed to 1,900 people in just under one week
The campaign launched days before CNNGo revealed the Hong Kong government’s push for space restrictions on street musicians. The Open Stage plan, which threatens to come into effect this summer, will force artists to audition in front of a panel of ‘experts’ for the right to perform on the pavement.
For Kung, who works to democratize music with free open-air concerts at the Hong Kong Arts Centre and beyond, the future of Hong Kong’s cultural landscape depends on the success of a bigger kind of democracy.
CNNGo: Tell me about the problems you've had with noise control in Hong Kong.
[The government thinks] the only way Hong Kong can match New York, Paris, or London is if we have a Lincoln Centre and a Broadway. They forget one thing: what makes New York "New York" is the jazz musician on the corner of the street. — Kung Chi Shing
CNNGo: What happened at the Indie Ones?
We sent out flyer and email notices to the residential buildings nearby. We warned them there would be some noise, but said that we would be reasonable and that we’d finish early. Also, the way I programmed it, it wasn’t like it was loud music. I think I held the quietest hip-hop concert in the world.
But at the first [event], residents started to complain. Every time the police came, I had to turn down [the sound] more and more. The second time they came, I stopped miking up the drums, but they kept coming and coming.
CNNGo: Would you say the government's control of noise is unreasonable?
But, I mean, one of the residents complained -- I think he wrote us an email -- to say that the noise would disturb his son’s studying for the public exams and ruin his future as a doctor or something. [Laughs]
If you want to talk about education, arts and music have more educational value than things like technology … but that’s the situation in Hong Kong.
CNNGo: Can the situation change?
I think what gets on people’s nerves is not the loud noise, but the different noise. And that reflects another situation -- the tolerance and the cultural background of the people. They just don’t accept music as an expressive sound.
CNNGo: Why are street performances and outdoor music events like the Indie Ones and your Arts Centre programme important to the city?
They forget one thing. What makes New York "New York" is the jazz musician on the corner of the street. You can’t focus on the peak of something and totally ignore its foundation.
CNNGo: Is there conflict between the ethos of the West Kowloon Cultural District project and impeding artists from performing at a grass roots level?
The only way to make a difference is to do it ourselves. Change never comes from above; it always comes from under.
CNNGo: How do you hope to make a difference?
At my concerts at the Arts Centre, I see a lot of parents who come with their kids. They’re 7 or 8 or teenagers -- young kids who can’t go to a club and see a rock band at 12 o’clock at night. You’re providing outdoor events to expose them to [music they can’t otherwise hear].
Again, it’s about cultivation and education, which is so valid. It’s so important. We need to have these sorts of activities in Hong Kong, we need the government to save them, and we need the general public to support them.
CNNGo: How involved are you in the Make Some Noise movement?
To one, we should invite as many people as possible. At the same time we should form a small working committee, who will look into the policy and talk to the media and the politicians and the people who can help us.
It’s all about action. The Wan Chai District Council is supportive of my concerts at the Arts Centre, but I had to do it first. I do worry that the Facebook group is not enough. You can have 2,000 or 20,000 people talking, but you need someone who will act.
CNNGo: Do you think the government will listen to you?
CNNGo: What’s your opinion on the Open Stage plan?
CNNGo: How would you describe the street music scene in Hong Kong?
I find Hong Kong to be a very exciting city, physically. When you walk down the street, it’s incredibly exciting- the rhythm, everything, the energy. But one thing that’s lacking is music, right?
I mean, you go to Cuba, you walk through Havana and it’s like music everywhere, people are everywhere playing on the street. And everything somehow makes sense. I want to create that kind of energy. It’s positive, it’s active, and it brings people together. Music has to be part of a modern city’s landscape.
CNNGo: What would you have done with the money that’s being poured into the West Kowloon project?
CNNGo: What do you think the future holds for artists in Hong Kong? Are you hopeful?