Pretty in punk
Rocker Gloomy Kwok Siu-fan looks into a mirror and smiles. Not long ago he would have felt ridiculous in make-up, but this afternoon he feels he has put on the perfect face for his photo session as the lead singer of Paranoid. His long hair has been styled into voluminous curls with citrus and pale-blond highlights, and he has applied heavy, smoky eyeshadow and wears grey contact lenses on his cat-like eyes - which again flit to the mirror.
'I never thought [we] men could look so beautiful when we dress up,' says the 23-year-old. 'It is so eye-catching that [it] lures audiences.'
Some music fans might say Kwok's style sticks out among Kowloon shoppers, but it's just right for 'visual rock' or 'visual kei', a genre that emerged from the Japanese underground music scene in the 1980s with gaudy, androgynous-looking bands such as X Japan, Luna Sea and L'Arc en Ciel. The music caught on in Hong Kong in the following decade after being shown on local TV, and tickets to Luna Sea's 1999 concert in Hong Kong were sold out in three hours. But the genre's local appeal declined when many of the groups split.
Kwok, a freelance make-up artist, first became interested in visual rock in 2003 after watching Japanese band Dir en Grey perform on TV.
'It was love at first sight,' Kwok says. 'It wasn't just their dramatic, androgynous look, but the combination of strong ballads and charismatic performances. Even the lighting and stage sets struck me.'
Kwok formed Paranoid in 2004 with four fellow devotees he met in an online forum. The band initially struggled for gigs. The newly formed quintet's first show, at a local middle school, was stopped before it started because a school official thought their androgynous dress was unsuitable for their young audience. The rockers eventually debuted at the Warehouse Teenage Club in Aberdeen and initially performed covers and Cantonese-language versions of the Japanese visual-rock hits to devotees.
But visual rock started to revive in Hong Kong when Luna Sea regrouped for a one-off concert in Tokyo in 2007 and X Japan reunited for a new single and a world tour stop at AsiaWorld Arena this year.
'These shows truly brought back some of the visual rock fans' memories and generated some buzz about the genre,' says disc jockey and music critic Wong Chi-chung.
Paranoid's fortunes changed last year. Having developed their own high-pitched, speed metal sound, they soon found gigs at venues such as Wan Chai's Rock School, Hidden Agenda in Kwun Tong and Musician Area in Kwai Fong, and are now among a dozen visual-rock musicians with a cult following on Hong Kong's underground music scene.
'Audiences love their live shows,' says Sam Pang, who founded Domination, a label specialising in local independent punk, visual rock and gothic rock, six years ago.
Visual rock seems to have re-emerged locally in the past six months. Pang says he has organised at least two gigs a month and other labels such as Music Gig and N.Set Music now run monthly concerts. Paranoid returned from four gigs in Japan last month after five Hong Kong concerts in August.
'Live concerts are the best promotion,' says Pang, in a pair of grungy jeans and a studded denim vest that he says he designed himself. 'Before, few people understood the aesthetics, now they are willing to give it a shot.'
The gigs have helped visual rock's revival in Hong Kong, says Hinz Chow Ching-hin, drummer in five-piece visual rock band Venue, who play J-pop ballads.
'More shows mean more opportunities for us to reach out to a broader audience and build our fan base,' the 19-year-old says.
The internet has also helped the genre, Chow says, explaining how he found his Venue bandmates in March through online discussion boards such as UWants.com and Hongkongband.com. Social networks such as Facebook and Myspace have also enabled musicians to post videos and event details for free, bands say.
Paranoid say they have registered more than 2,000 mainly female fans on their Facebook pages since September last year and Venue say more than 3,000 devotees have clicked on their site since March.
Natalia Tse, a secondary school teaching assistant, used to listen to western glam-rock bands such as Kiss until she was introduced to Japanese visual rock and Paranoid by friends.
'I appreciate their originality and daring taste in music and fashion,' says the 23-year-old. 'Their live performance is a whole package full of shocking elements: the costumes, lighting and all sorts of theatre. It's an exhilarating experience that you barely see elsewhere.'
Kwok says looks are key to the success of a visual-rock band.
'Our fans have high expectations,' he says. 'I never let anyone else do my make-up.'
Kwok says he lost 10kg to fit into his shimmering, skin-tight vest, by spending six hours a week in the gym and sticking to a wonton-noodle diet for a year.
His parents didn't like his style.
'They were pretty sarcastic about my feminine look,' Kwok says. 'But after a while, they realised I wasn't just messing around but that I was serious about visual rock and my music. Some may call us sissies, or worse, but there has never been a moment I've doubted myself.'
Chow says he has few friends outside the visual rock circle on account of his looks. 'They kind of isolated me at school because I look different,' says the final-year digital electronic and information engineering student at the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education. 'I was never popular. When they actually try to understand me, they'll see that I'm just a normal person.'
Backstage at the Rock School, Venue guitarist Veena Lau Siu-fai is just as fastidious about his image.
'I prefer wearing make-up because it makes me feel I'm channelling my alter ego, someone who belongs on stage, not the mundane daily life,' says the 26-year-old vet's assistant, adjusting his long blond curly wig and an embroidered umbrella that matches his lace Lolita-style dress.
But Kwok says there is more to visual rock than frocks and frills.
'Outfits and make-up are just points of attraction,' he says. 'Music is always the core, without which it's only visual, with no spirit of rock.'
'People used to judge us only by our appearances, but now they are more open minded and are willing to come out and listen to us,' he says. 'And that's encouraging.'