A place less bustling to do some busking
Lucinda Shen and Lilly Zhang
It was about 8pm on a recent balmy evening and lone guitarist Tomii Chan Wai-yan was plucking his strings for the few passers-by who paused on their nightly stroll to listen to his performance. But most threw him no more than a glance or two before moving on.
This apparent lack of an audience, however, did not seem to bother the 19-year-old digital music and media student who had intentionally left the bustling Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mong Kok for this quiet spot on the Kwun Tong Promenade.
He is not alone. Joseph and Zoe von Hess of Head Clowns have also abandoned the heavy human traffic of Causeway Bay for smaller crowds in more remote corners in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui.
'Some people say [Mong Kok] is a real Mecca for busking. I don't think it is really,' said the Welsh musician, who started busking with his wife on Sai Yeung Choi Street three months ago. 'It's just a place where all the buskers squash together and you have to compete for space.'
The competition arises not just from other street performers, but also mobile phone contract salespeople and hawkers active on the street at night. It was also hard for the duo - who play light, funky folk music with a clarinet and a ukulele - to make themselves heard over amplified music from shops and LED billboards.
'We're an acoustic setup here; we're not that loud,' he said. 'So it's really not that good for us.'
They now play once or twice a week on Queen's Road Central and near the ferry pier in Tsim Sha Tsui, appreciating the more relaxed atmosphere and fewer run-ins with the police.
Busking is legal in Hong Kong. A court ruling in 2010 stated that street performers and artists, including buskers, are protected under Article 34 of the Basic Law, which guarantees the freedom to engage in literary and artistic creation.
Andrew So Chun-chau, known as 'Mr Funny', was acquitted of obstructing a public place after he attracted 50 to 80 onlookers while juggling on Great George Street in Causeway Bay. His success has led to a rise in number of street performers congregating in Mong Kok and Causeway Bay.
Police say street performers must not break laws against obscenity, indecency or creating a nuisance. If they do, the police may issue verbal warnings, terminate the performance or charge the performers.
But Joseph von Hess said some officers were more zealous than others. 'They invoke any and every reason for moving us on, including telling us that busking is illegal, which is of course not true. The final straw came when a policeman told us there had been a noise complaint before we had even started playing!'
Chan, who began busking two years ago, was lured to the Kwun Tong Promenade not only because of its open space, but the buzz the district has as a hub for independent musicians.
Kwun Tong's old industrial harbour area is developing into a recreational district under the Kai Tak Outline Zoning Plan. Musical studios and practice rooms have moved there because of the lower rent and the freedom to make noise.
The operators of Hidden Agenda, a live performance venue in Kwun Tong, estimate that factory buildings in the district provide practice space for 80 per cent of Hong Kong's independent musicians.
'It's kind of like a gathering point for music workers in Hong Kong,' Chan said, 'They're moving their lives to Kwun Tong. They're moving their performances to Kwun Tong.'
Chan busks at Kwun Tong's promenade also because he can borrow hard-to-transport gear from friends who work in the music industry and live nearby. The MTR station is also close.
Lai Yin-chi, assistant artistic director of FM Theatre Power, a veteran in street performances, said busking culture had a chance to grow in Hong Kong as public attitudes change to one of tolerance.
Nathan Tse, a Kwun Tong resident who occasionally sees buskers at the promenade, said: 'I don't really have an opinion about busking. As long as it doesn't affect too many people, I don't care.'
Others such as Irene Leung, 19, a counselling and psychology major at the University of Hong Kong, admires buskers for their bravery and hopes that with time, busking will spread to other areas of Hong Kong.