XXX marks the hot spot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am

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It's 2am on a Saturday morning and something's happening in the otherwise sleepy district of Sheung Wan. On a quiet, mostly residential street, a rabble of young rousers has gathered outside a seemingly innocuous metal door. Motorbikes are parked and engines switched off, long-haired youths in skinny jeans chat over clouds of cigarette smoke, and through it all, you can hear the faint sounds of electronic music coming from somewhere below.

This is XXX, the area's latest underground 'art gallery' - but down the dark staircase that lies beyond that metal door is a space unlike many in Hong Kong have ever seen. At times called 'ex-ex-ex' by its regular patrons, and at others just 'triple x', it's the kind of place you'd expect to see in vibrant, arts-focused cities such as Berlin or Antwerp - not Hong Kong.

And that's exactly what its owner, DJ Enso, wants.

Originally hailing from San Francisco, Enso - born Cassady Winston - made his way to Hong Kong in 2007 and quickly established himself as a DJ and an event promoter. He teamed up with DJ Kid Fresh in 2008 to throw popular parties under the banners of Pimpin' Ain't Easy and Hype Nasty, but found himself limited by the venues our city has to offer.

'As a DJ and promoter for the past few years in Hong Kong, it's always been clear to me how much we could benefit from more variety in terms of venue options,' says Enso. 'A lot of spots do the members-only thing well, but that gets a bit boring. I wanted to offer a venue that had a rougher underground feel, without all that money worry.'

XXX's location is key: situated on Wing Lok Street in the burgeoning Sheung Wan district, the space is the first of its kind on the scene, a spacious area that caters to a variety of creatively minded individuals. Music is obviously first and foremost on Enso's agenda, with XXX's underground location and high-quality sound system standing in stark contrast to the numerous Hong Kong clubs that often face noise complaints.

'I've always loved Sheung Wan, especially at night with the old neon signs - it's an old neighbourhood with a lot of history and texture. This made it a perfect place for XXX,' says Enso. 'It's so close to Central, so it is no surprise to see so many people moving there or opening galleries and restaurants.'

But make no mistake: XXX isn't a club - or at least, Enso would prefer if you didn't call it that. The word 'club' in Hong Kong has negative connotations to the DJ, often associated with a uniform mentality in terms of music, d?cor, branding and programming. Couple this with his degree in art history, and one can see why Enso prefers the idea of a gallery space - but of course, not in the traditional sense.

'We aim more to be an underground arts space with different types of things going on,' he says. 'More than anything I wanted an opportunity to get people in a confined space and mess with them in some creative and constructive ways.'

And that's what has happened. In the seven months since XXX opened, Enso has hosted a variety of events beyond the traditional music nights, including art exhibitions, movie nights and ping-pong parties, many of which have seen sizeable turnouts.

That's partially due to the variety of talent and creativity that Enso has secured, but it's also because of XXX's unconventional drinks policy: with no liquor licence, guests are encouraged to bring their own beverages for 'that nice house party vibe'.

It's a strange system that contrasts sharply with the overpriced, watered-down beverages that fuel bars around town. It also begs the question as to where, exactly, the space is making money from.

'Money does flow in from private event bookings and contributions at the door, and we're starting to make some 'art money',' says Enso. 'But it's fair to say that we never set this up as a proper money-making venture - what we are able to make generally goes to pay the bills, with any extra getting reinvested for making XXX bigger and better.'

Indeed, Enso is entertaining a number of ideas for future XXX projects, including transforming the venue into a makeshift tutorial centre, where he'll teach local youths to 'start standing up for themselves'. It's a 'silly idea', he says, but it does demonstrate the options available to him. And right now, he's happy with the success of XXX.

'The convenience of living in Hong Kong is a double-edged sword - it's great in a lot of ways, but it can also make people too comfortable and unwilling to try new things,' says Enso. 'Whereas in most Western cities - or Singapore, Tokyo or Osaka - there are successful club nights pushing underground or niche genres, it's nowhere near that level in Hong Kong.

'Most folks that open a space seem to either be independently wealthy or have investors - neither of which is particularly conducive to taking risks or free creative expression. We've been lucky on this with XXX, probably because we always knew this wasn't a money-making venture. This is about making a creative contribution to Hong Kong and encouraging others to do the same.'

Inspiring words, especially when one compares XXX's creative vision with the generally sorry state of the arts in Hong Kong (think the long-delayed West Kowloon Cultural District). Enso is one of the few pushing its boundaries, and while one can't but wonder whether more venues are on the cards for the DJ, the irony in his answer is obvious: 'Let me get back to you on this after I pay off this HSBC Personal Instalment Loan.'

 

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