Blue note

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2011, 12:00am


Whenever I hear the sound of a saxophone, I have to stop, stand and take it in. It has been that way since the night in 1975 when, driving with my father on a back road with the radio on, I heard the late, great, Clarence Clemons let fly on Bruce Springsteen's song Born To Run. A decade later, while living in London, a busker with a considerable flair for the instrument held me transfixed each time I passed him in the South Kensington Tube station. I am not used to such spontaneous entertainment on the streets of Hong Kong, so it was natural that I was taken aback when I heard those sonorous tones in Quarry Bay MTR.

The waves of sound washing over me, I froze and strained my ears to hear where they were coming from. Instinct said to find the source and stand before it, using the occasion to unwind, take a little time out from a hectic schedule and marvel at the abilities of a talented musician. Quickly, though, it was apparent that the MTR had not taken a leaf out of the books of other great subway systems by allowing live performers. I realised that it was a recording and, deflated, I trudged on to the next destination, wishing that Hong Kong could show a bit of the soul that it is often so lacking.

Buskers are all but an anathema to officials in our city. They see them as a nuisance, a barrier on busy streets that should be flowing swiftly so that shops can do even more business. The thought of someone publicly singing, playing an instrument, reciting poetry or juggling with an open case before them to collect appreciative coins and notes is to them horrifying; it is akin to begging, a sign of poverty and a step away from criminal activity. In the back of minds, there is also the possibility of a perceived unwanted disturbance, a Tibetan flag being unfurled or acrimonious statements being thrown at authority.

To those who have experienced the vibrant street life of London, New York and Sydney, to name but a few, this is the oddest of logic. Like Hong Kong, these cities also require performers to have a permit. Unlike our city, though, the talent and skills of buskers are encouraged, cherished and flaunted. While those cities allow them to perform in places where they can be seen and appreciated, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department hides them in locations like the Sha Tin Town Hall plaza or chases them away with warnings and fines.

In their place are swarms of people handing out free newspapers, public spaces uncomfortably narrowed by the holiest of grails, construction scaffolding, and all around a cacophony of noise from pounding jackhammers. They, to authorities, are the signs of industry and progress. Someone singing for appreciative glances of recognition, spare change, perhaps the attention of a talent scout, the hope of making a frazzled person's day a little bit better is viewed suspiciously or as a troublemaker.

From time to time in busy places like Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mong Kok or on Great George Street in Causeway Bay, a street artist will run the gauntlet of police or food and hygiene inspectors. This is despite the Basic law guaranteeing the right to engage in artistic performances. Until officials see the value to society of buskers, it seems the only saxophones I will hear on the streets will be recordings.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post