Is Hong Kong ready for its own heavy metal fest? With the new Heart-Town Festival, taking place simultaneously in Hong Kong and Taiwan from August 8 to 10, promoter Jimmy Liu has been getting that question a lot lately. "People are asking me, are you trying to be Loud Park or something?" says Liu, referring to Japan's top music festival for metal, hardcore and every other genre that drives a mosh pit.
"At first, we just wanted to start a music festival. But we also wanted to be different. Not Chinese pop. Not mainstream indie. So we ended up with this really hardcore line-up, and now I'm thinking like maybe we are going the direction of Loud Park, Download Festival or Ozzfest."
For headliners, the Hong Kong event has invited some top hardcore bands from the US and Britain — Architects, Finch, While She Sleeps and Issues — alongside heavy local bands Chockma, King Zhi, Kolor, The Majestic G, Mensheng, Niu Liu, Rain in Time, Shepherds the Weak, Tie Shu Lan, Supper Moment, ToNick and Underklot.
They will play over three days at a 2,000-capacity stage at the Kitec venue in Kowloon Bay. The international bands have in the past decade all made solid names for themselves on the youth-oriented circuit of metal festivals. Two of the bands — Finch and Issues — will appear on this year's Vans Warped Tour.
In the past, they'd be said to fit a punk demographic. But now that market has developed its own mainstream and the bands, taking cues from precursors such as Slipknot, Limp Bizkit, Sepultura, and others, have taken to describing themselves as post-hardcore, metalcore, mathcore, metallic hardcore, and the like.
This generational stab at self-proclaimed newness is mostly intended to differentiate themselves from what came before, especially nu-metal (think Linkin Park). What they have in common is screaming vocals and intensely fast guitar riffs lifted from extreme metal (think Norway). There's also a general reverence for the roots of California punk and hardcore (think Black Flag) that shows through in the postures of disaffected, suburban youth.
Bringing these bands for a weekend of madness in Taiwan and Hong Kong is Liu's brainchild. He named the festival "Heart-Town", after Taichung, his home city. In Chinese, the second character in the city name, "chung" pairs with the character "xin" to mean "centre" or "heart".
Liu has become an instrumental figure in Taichung's heavy music scene, both as a musician and promoter. Now in his thirties, he spent the previous decade working in a Taiwanese PR firm as his day job, while also performing in nu-metal band Solidor as lead vocalist. He has also developed into a regional promoter, booking metal acts in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the mainland, Malaysia and Thailand.
Five years ago, Liu started working with a fledgling, government-funded festival called Rock in Taichung, which brought punk out into the open at a time when the city was cracking down on live music venues after hundreds died in a nightclub fire. For the past two years, Liu acted as the main organiser, bringing international bands to play with local acts with the government's blessing.
But he became frustrated, and this year went out on his own to launch Heart-Town.
Holding the festival jointly in Taiwan and Hong Kong is a big part of his plan, and, in doing so, Liu joins the ranks of Taiwanese promoters expanding to the Hong Kong market. As a trend, this began about three years ago with the launch of Taiwan Calling, a concert featuring up to a dozen Taiwanese indie singers and bands. Also in 2011, Taiwan's Hohaiyan Rock Festival made its first stab in Hong Kong.
This month will see not only the launch of Heart-Town Festival — held in partnership with Hong Kong's Zuk Studios — but also the first Hong Kong edition of Spring Wave, an indie rock concert that has been drawing thousands of fans to Taiwan's southern beaches annually since 2006.
"Lately, Hong Kong has become closer to Taiwan in every way. Part of this is an admiration for Taiwan's music scene, which has been a hugely important platform for Mandarin music over the past 20 years. Another part is a desire to be different from mainland China. There is a new kindred spirit related to the democracy movements in both places," says Liu.
"You can feel that in the music. Now, it seems like nine out of 10 bands in Hong Kong are playing metal and they are all singing about life issues. They are not singing about love, they are singing about reform and political change. This is related to what's happening with China, and the increased social pressures since the handover," he says.
Does this mean Heart-Town Festival will be filled with politics and heavy overtones? Liu chuckles at this question. "That's just my personal feeling about what's happening in the scene," he says. "For this concert, I just hope there's a lot of moshing."
Heart-Town Festival, August 8-10, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$480 (one-day ticket), HK$780 (three-day pass), Cityline. Inquiries: 2395 3332