Rock 'n' stroll
Dodging police and security guards, buskers are finding something to sing about on our streets. David Momphard spares some change
Jing Wong doesn't miss a note when he smiles and nods to a young girl who has just dropped a HK$10 bill into his guitar case. When others in his Sunday afternoon audience in Sai Yeung Choi Street match the child's gift, the 26-year-old sings a little louder.
Hong Kong isn't known for its street performers and their number is unknown. But the few who perform regularly out of passion or for pocket change say the rewards outweigh occasional hassle from security guards, police and surly pedestrians.
Wong isn't exactly singing for his supper. The British-trained designer co-owns the fashion label Daydream Nation with his sister, Kay. But for nearly a year he has crooned for crowds at weekends in Mong Kok and at the Star Ferry pier in Tsim Sha Tsui, singing tunes by the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bert Jansch. 'I have a strong desire to perform,' says Wong. 'On the street I can improvise things or even f*** up - no one cares. It seems like the best venue.'
Wong says he typically earns about HK$700 for about four hours' busking on Sunday afternoons. He'll stop to grab a bite to eat if he's hungry, but he's not always had to.
'I once had a kid hang around listening for a while,' Wong says. 'He disappeared then came back. He didn't give me coins or anything but he did buy me a hamburger. That was really sweet.'
Couples have also bought him bottles of water, but the best gifts have been more personal, he says. He once received a note from a girl saying she felt sad, so he sang a song that cheered her up and received her thanks. 'Small things like that make it worthwhile.'
Although he's focused on his design work, Wong says he still daydreams of being 'discovered' while singing on the streets - as balladeers Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were, and guitarists Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana.
But many buskers just want to get by. Each weekend, elderly performer Wong Kwok-chung pushes a cart out to the walkways that bridge the IFC Mall to the rest of Central. It bears a small stool, an amplifier and a microphone that he has taped to a harmonica and his erhu.
One of Hong Kong's louder buskers, Wong can be heard sawing away at old Chinese songs from several hundred metres away, giving pedestrians plenty of time to fish for a few coins. He says busking has helped him make ends meet for 'several years'. But he's not saying how much he earns, and stops playing long enough to pocket three of the four HK$20 bills in his collection can. He needs the money, not the frequent attention of police officers, he says.
The force says there is no regulation governing street performance beyond having to heed laws concerning 'prohibitions on nuisance, annoyance or obstruction in any public place to people or traffic'. Buskers are also prohibited from performing anything of an 'indecent, obscene, revolting or offensive nature'.
Police officers say that if they find a street artist in breach of the law, they will follow up with 'appropriate action' - for instance, a verbal warning for creating a nuisance or prosecution in more serious cases.
The force doesn't keep records on the number of prosecutions or complaints against street performers, but advises them how to get a busking permit; oddly, it's the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department that issues them.
But getting a permit isn't easy. Phone inquiries are directed to a telephone number, where callers are instructed to make their request in a detailed message and wait to be called back. One such request has yet to receive a return call after two weeks.
Buskers can also pick up the department's 126-page guide to applying for a licence, and send in an application - in quadruplicate - 18 days before hitting the street. Permits are granted for specific dates.
But rather than wade into this bureaucracy, local buskers say it's easier to take a chance on being moved on by guards and police.
Jing Wong has encountered police officers who compliment him on his guitar skills and let him play on, but others are less understanding. He recalls how he once turned on his microphone to challenge an officer's request for him to vacate the pavement, saying that Hong Kong doesn't respect music and the arts.
'A crowd started gathering. The policeman grabbed the microphone and told everyone that the government does respect the arts. Then he left me alone.'
David Juritz, a solo violinist with the London Mozart Players who busked his way through Hong
Kong as part of a well-publicised tour in support of children's charity Musequality, had a far better experience.
But once camera crews had left, Juritz says he and his 1748 Guadagnini violin were treated like any other busker. 'I spent much of the first day being chased around Hong Kong by security guards.'
He says the public was far more generous than he'd been led to expect. Despite warnings to the contrary, Juritz says 'Hong Kong turned out to be one of the most busker-friendly cities I visited'.
'Shanghai was surprising in that I was allowed to play on the streets for quite a while as long as I wasn't asking for money. In Seoul I did have my case open for contributions and was very nearly arrested.'
As might be expected, the west is more relaxed about busking. Juritz says cities such as Sydney, Santa Monica and Vancouver made getting permits a breeze and New York didn't require one at all.
Busking for charity is no guarantee of a hatful of change. When Christina Houston's children - Christian, 10, and Kate, eight - tried to raise money for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami by playing their violins at the old Star Ferry pier, their efforts were rebuffed. 'They had signs explaining that the money was for a fund their school was raising for tsunami victims, but someone still called the police.'
That incident led Houston and her children to establish Instruments of Hope, a registered charity in which child musicians perform to raise money for other registered charities. 'It's a way that local kids - regardless of what language they speak - can perform community service,' Houston says.
That kind of 'community service' can have more than one beneficiary.
At least one person in the crowd around Jing Wong on Sai Yeung Choi Street says the lack of street performers is a stumbling block for Hong Kong.
'Foreigners say Hong Kong has no soul,' says Regina Cheung Kit-man, who has recently returned from university in Britain. 'We have a lot of shopping, but nothing outside the stores to entertain people. Maybe if we had more people like [Wong] we wouldn't be accused of not having soul.'