Back where we belong
It's a Sunday morning in January 2008 and Jay Forster is on clean-up duty at Cyberport. His friend and business partner, Mike Hill, is lying on the grass nearby, sipping a beer, physically and mentally drained but euphoric.
The two Britons had just put together the inaugural Clockenflap, an outdoor multimedia music festival that filled a glaring gap in the city's music and arts scene. Forster and Hill had been regular fixtures on Hong Kong's alternative music scene since moving here, separately, in the late 1990s, hosting electronic music events with an artistic edge under the Robot moniker.
A grass-roots music festival with heavy art and visual elements was something of a dream for the men.
The 12-hour festival the previous day had been a success, with more than 2,000 fans packing the lawns of Cyberport to see a line-up headlined by British band The Young Knives. On that particular day, the future of Clockenflap - and the music festival scene in Hong Kong - seemed bright indeed.
Fast forward three years to today, less than two weeks before Clockenflap 2011, and things have seemingly gone according to plan. Hill and Forster, with the help of music promoter Justin Sweeting, have put together an alternative music line-up that is perhaps bigger and better than anything Hong Kong has ever seen.
British indie rockers The Cribs and Bombay Bicycle Club, US electro-rap star Santigold, and New York indie pop darlings The Pains of Being Pure at Heart top a bill that also includes mainland rockers Free the Birds and a host of strong local acts such as Noughts & Exes, DP and Poubelle International.
But it's been a roller-coaster ride for the organisers. In 2009, the second edition of Clockenflap expanded to two days and featured more international acts (British rockers Los Campesinos! and Blood Red Shoes, among others), but noise complaints from residents near Cyberport dampened the mood and threatened the future of the festival.
Forster and Hill tried to move the 2010 edition to the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade, but were thwarted by government red tape and restrictions. They had to settle for a small indoor show at an art gallery in an industrial building.
Although that show was headlined by British rockers The Charlatans and held under the Clockenflap banner, Hill admits the 2010 edition 'wasn't really Clockenflap'. He says: 'We looked at last year's show as a stop-gap. We used the name only to keep the brand going.'
That makes this year's festival a comeback of sorts. It's being held at the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade, the same venue Forster and Hill had trouble securing last year, but the space - with its lush lawn and, more importantly, lack of residential buildings nearby - was such an ideal location for a music festival that the two practically bent over backwards to secure it.
'I wouldn't say [the government] eased up on the red tape and restrictions,' Forster says. 'But we have become more flexible in adapting to them.'
The duo didn't really have a choice if they wanted Clockenflap to continue, says Hill, adding: 'We both knew that if Clockenflap didn't happen again this year, it would be dead.'
Forster and Hill made huge concessions to get Clockenflap 2011 going. For starters, entry this year is free (because of restrictions imposed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which manages the West Kowloon space).
Not that Clockenflap was ever a real money-maker, but free entry has greatly increased the financial burden for Forster and Hill, who have day jobs in the design and IT fields, respectively. They have received sponsorship from the British Council and some alcoholic drink brands, plus there'll be income from food and beverage sales, but they're unlikely to fully cover the cost of an event of this magnitude.
Still, they are willing to sacrifice monetarily to invest for the future. 'The West Kowloon space is perfect for music festivals. We just need to prove ourselves [to the government] even if we have to do it on their terms this year,' Forster says.
Local performers seem to agree with the strategy - most are playing at generously discounted rates. Vincent Wong Wai-yiu, who is one half of local band Snoblind, says the location of the festival boosts its importance.
'Being in the spot where the West Kowloon Cultural District will be makes it extra important,' says Wong, who, along with bandmate Regina Chang Ming-lai, played at the first two Clockenflap events. 'That's an area that aims to promote arts and culture, and Clockenflap could set an example of how things should be done.'
Everybody in the industry, say Hill and Forster, knows this is an investment in the future of the scene in Hong Kong.
Sweeting, who's responsible for lining up Clockenflap's international acts, says the festival is an important part of the big picture. 'Artists need opportunities to make progress and Clockenflap represents one rung on the ladder of the growing music infrastructure in Hong Kong.' As one of the key organisers of the original Rockit festival from 2003 to 2006, Sweeting has been championing the local indie scene for nearly a decade.
In the past few years, he's brought over - in tandem with concert organisers Untitled Entertainment and his own company, The People's Party - dozens of international acts, from established names such as MGMT and The Flaming Lips to smaller, indie artists such as Swedish folk singer Jose Gonzalez and Montreal rockers Handsome Furs.
Forster and Hill say these artists filled a niche in Hong Kong that was missing until this decade.
'There was never a shortage of big, mainstream names and stadium acts coming to Hong Kong,' says Forster. 'But we never really got the smaller, up-and-coming international indie bands before the past few years.'
It is that particular scene, they say, that has grown in Hong Kong. 'We definitely can't take full credit,' says Hill. 'But we'd like to think Clockenflap helped.'
Normally with most business or creative ventures, once the initial push has been completed and the branding and consumer target has been set, all aspects of operation should become easier. But that's not the case with Clockenflap - the guys are keen on pushing the envelope.
'We're constantly stepping up in terms of scope of the festival in both size and the profile of the acts,' Sweeting says. 'So although we're becoming more established, we're also upping the challenges every year.'
Getting the big acts not only takes time, effort and money, but sometimes, a bit of luck too.
'This is going to sound dodgy but I promise that it's not,' Sweeting says. 'But [getting Bombay Bicycle Club for Clockenflap] started when I randomly met their lead singer in a bathroom in Toronto, and we found out we were both born in Hong Kong.'
Another headliner, The Cribs, once shared the bill with Sweeting's band Six Ray Sun in Britain, and the two sides have stayed in touch.
Then there's Santigold, whose Brooklyn roots and hip hop and reggae influences add a new twist to Hong Kong's indie scene.
'She's going to bring a style that Clockenflap hasn't had before,' says Hill.
But don't focus on just the international acts, says Sweeting. 'Two years ago, mainland band Pet Conspiracy absolutely stole the show,' he says. 'The lead singer of that band is back with another band [Free the Birds] this year.'
With festival tickets in high demand - when online registration went live, the traffic was so strong it crashed the festival website - the organisers are advising fans to turn up early and soak up the sun.
'We only ask one thing: please don't bring your own food and drink,' Forster says. 'We're working our asses off to put this free show up and want people to support us and have a good time.'
Hill jokingly adds: 'We know we made the beer too expensive in 2009. We've learnt our lesson; it'll be cheap this time around.'
Clockenflap Music & Arts Festival, Dec 10-11, 12pm-10pm, West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade, free. For registration and inquiries, go to www.clockenflap.com
The main acts
Harbour Flap Stage
Bombay Bicycle Club (UK)
The Cribs (UK)
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (US)
Free the Birds (CN)
Benjamin Francis Leftwich (UK)
Luke Vibert (UK)
Uptown Rockers (HK)
Choi Sai-Ho (HK)
DJ Enso (HK)
Yuen Chi-chung (HK)
People's Party Stage
French Horn Rebellion (US)
Chad Valley (UK)
Duck Fight Goose (CN)
Free the Birds (CN)
9 Maps (HK)
Poubelle International (HK)
Jing Wong (HK)
The Evening Primrose (HK)
Rachel Believes in Me (HK)
Luke Chow (HK)
Sun Eskimos (HK)