The blues buddies jam out
Six years ago, long-haired Briton William Tang flew to town with an engineering degree tucked neatly inside his suitcase, hoping to land a job in Hong Kong - the land of his father.
He soon found himself installing a movie system in a hotel. But the amateur bluesman, surprisingly, found the territory's limited live music scene more alluring than entertaining hotel guests with films.
'I found [the local scene] pretty limited. It's Canto-pop and Canto-pop only,' Tang, 25, recalled.
'It wasn't like I have been playing the blues all my life, though. I didn't know about the blues until my final year [at college in Rochdale, northern England] and I only wanted to improve when I got to Hong Kong. I certainly didn't intend it to be my career.' During his eight months at the hotel, however, he found his blues passion taking him to the stage in pubs, bars and hotels night after night. Then he decided it was time to say goodbye to engineering.
'When I started studying engineering in England, I was into motorbikes. But, I found music gives me all this freedom,' he said.
Since then, Tang has been a fixture on Hong Kong's live scene. He has performed with two bands - Blue Wail and Fresh Yesterday - and done numerous solo and duet gigs. His harmonica-and-guitar blues have been heard all over town.
'I first met some musicians in the Jazz Club and then we jammed a bit and decided to form Blue Wail.
'Our first gig was in the Press Club five years ago. Then more gigs came in,' he said.
After having two bands under his belt, Tang found survival as a solo artist was easier.
'All of my energy was in Blue Wail but it's difficult. Sometimes it's a bit frustrating to organise a band,' Tang said.
'I organised the rehearsals, gigs, and the song tapes. I don't want to do that anymore. I just want to play music.' While audiences found the lone bluesman's live numbers moody and ear-pleasing, they never stopped wondering about his Asian looks. 'My father was from Hong Kong and my mother is British,' he explained.
Being an unsigned artist in Hong Kong is hard enough, but playing the blues can be even more gruelling. And there was no blues market in Hong Kong, Tang said.
'In the United States, even a minority audience would constitute a sizeable market for the blues but not in Hong Kong.
'It's difficult to make money out of pure blues,' Tang said.
'It does not bother me because I am pretty convinced that I would sell more records abroad because my music is not really Canto-pop. I want to aim at Taiwan, Australia, Japan and even the West.' Having signed to the Taiwan-based Rock Records, he may stand a better chance of extending his music overseas.
He has recorded a 12-song album with three original numbers and several jam sessions, one with jazz guitarist Eugene Pao.
Recently, Tang found time for some fun with slide guitarist Robert Finlay, who also shares his concern that the blues should not be taken too seriously.
'Hong Kong is associated with business and how to make money. You don't find much backing playing the blues since it's more like an art in Hong Kong,' Finlay, 43, said.
'You end up doing what you have to do. If what you do is not making money, obviously you won't stick around very long.' Finlay, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up on a farm, said he had been instilled with the blues since childhood. His nanny was a predominant 'happy blues' influence on him.
After spending his late teens and early 20s playing in 'beat-up cowboy bars' and paying hotel bills by painting their walls, he accepted a friend's free ticket to Hong Kong and decided to try his luck.
He met Tang five years ago but they didn't hit it off immediately. 'Our styles are dissimilar,' Finlay said.
But Tang found there was room for them to work together. 'When Blue Wail first started, I would call him whenever a guy in the band couldn't show up.' Humour spices their blues duets.
'Everything is pretty spontaneous. We don't know what the other will do, and usually I'm the guy that doesn't know what will happen,' Finlay said.
He added: 'Whatever [Tang] happens to think of, we just go for it. Not everything is pre-arranged and that's part of the thrill. If you don't know what will happen, you have to listen and be on your toes.' Finlay believes blues has a simplicity and space that allows for personal expression.
Not unlike other struggling musicians in town, they have tried to make ends meet with studio work for Canto-popsters such as Jacky Cheung Hok-yau, Sandy Lam Yik-lin and on television commercials.
Finlay has just finished a four-month break during which he put some of his music ideas into songs and hopes that his 'well-connected' friends in Los Angeles will open a few doors for him.
But for now, Hong Kong had better prepare to get the blues, with some laughter thrown in, at the Fringe Club next Wednesday.
William Tang and Robert Finlay, the Fringe Club, 10pm, August 21. Tel: 2521-7251