The joy of six
NIMAL JAYAWARDENA sits in the darkness and peers through the window at sun-splashed Shelley Street in Central. It's mid-afternoon in his grungy music club Amnesia. With its black sofas, dark red walls, chipped disco ball, well-trodden dance floor and stage, it's a throwback to the heyday of punk. And this weekend the venue is celebrating its sixth birthday.
Amnesia is on the third floor of an office block called Al Aqmar House off the escalator in SoHo. Opening hours? Erratic, to say the least - it opens only a couple of times a month, to host underground punk, rock, drum'n'bass and hip-hop performances.
Over the years, the gigs have ranged from unknowns to renowned. In 2003, Japanese rockers Electric Eel Shock delivered a blinding show. Australian band Regurgitator also played there after headlining last year's Rockit Festival. Frontman Quan Yeomans says he's a fan. 'It's punky. It's good - just the way a punk rock venue should be.'
Amnesia was launched six years ago, after Jayawardena quit his job as a brand manager, two years after returning to Hong Kong from studying at Arizona State University.
He'd been organising DJ nights at the now-defunct CE Top in Lyndhurst Terrace. 'We were flying in cheap house DJs, but it was always packed. Within a month we gathered together $60,000 to open our own nightclub.'
With partner and promoter Didier Li, he formed the Matrix Entertainment Group and launched Amnesia. 'I never wanted a flash nightclub,' Jayawardena says. 'I wanted a space for artists to express themselves, whether DJs or bands.'
After a financially difficult first year, they've finally developed a solid, if somewhat unusual, club phenomenon. One of the more popular, long-running nights has been Brown Sugar, which offers a mixture of indie, Brit-pop, rock, electro and dance.
'It's a place where rock lovers and the indie crowd can converge,' says one of Brown Sugar's organisers, Ken Yuen.
Running the DJ booth on many Brown Sugar nights has been Elvin Wong Chi-chung, - a veteran TV presenter, radio DJ and well-known figure in the local music scene. 'It's a niche club,' says Wong. 'It's not for the masses, but if you like the vibe there you'll find it cool.'
The club has changed over the years. 'I think the breakthrough came when we started to do live music,' Jayawardena says. 'That's when we saw an energy that we didn't see before. At that time there were just flash bars in Hong Kong. There was nowhere for underground talents.'
The direction of the club changed significantly during a drum'n'bass night in early 2003 headlined by Bristol crew DJ Suv and Stamina MC. 'That was one of our top two nights,' he says. 'It was right in the middle of Sars, but it was rammed and, musically, it was on another level. We thought, 'this has got to come out of the underground and go to the masses'.'
Six months later came the inaugural Rockit Festival in Victoria Park. The two-day event was organised from the dark hub of Amnesia. An expanded festival was held last year, and it's been confirmed to be going ahead again this October.
During all this, Amnesia has served as the base for a magazine, Spy, and most recently it's served as an indie film base, with Jayawardena directing a piece with the working title Last Kiss (apparently inspired by a Pearl Jam song).
Jayawardena is undoubtedly energetic and focused. 'It's a double-edged sword,' he says. 'I have the determination to get things done and sometimes people take it the wrong way, thinking I'm focusing too much on myself. But you've got to make believers out of the money men. Amnesia has gone beyond expectations, so I think it's a case of waiting for Rockit to reach a level where that becomes a viable business, because there's so much more we can do with it.'
Of Saturday's anniversary, Jayawardena says: 'It's just a chance to say thanks. You can get somewhere if you want to. It's just a case of determination and hard work.'
Amnesia's sixth anniversary party, featuring live acts My Stoned Playground, The Pok Guys, Patryolk, Albino Band and Romantic, and the Brown Sugar DJs, Sat, 10pm, 3/F Al Aqmar House, Central. Inquiries: 6440 2166