"You know, none of this makes any sense. A freak show, a giant cuckoo clock, none of it makes any sense." That's Jay Forster, one of the founders of Clockenflap, Hong Kong's only international music festival, going over the new additions to this year's event. Fellow founders Mike Hill and Justin Sweeting share Forster's sense of giddy wonder. That giant cuckoo clock is as good a symbol as any of just how far Clockenflap has come.
Clockenflap is the product of three creative friends and their frustration with live music in Hong Kong. Hill, Forster and Sweeting bonded as members of the electronic music collective, Robot, in the 1990s. For four years Robot played at Rockit, then Hong Kong's only major music festival for which Sweeting was the music director and Forster handled the visuals and branding. When the festival folded it left a gaping hole in Hong Kong's already struggling music scene and after two years the members of Robot couldn't take it anymore: "We were like, 'This is rubbish. That was like the one week in the year when Hong Kong kind of got exciting. We decided we would do it ourselves," Forster says.
Starting a music festival is no easy task but eventually, in 2008, the first Clockenflap Music and Arts Festival kicked off at Cyberport, with 2,000 music-hungry revellers in attendance. The crowd swelled to 4,000 the next year.
At first Clockenflap settled in happily at Cyberport, says Hill: "Starting a festival is all about baby steps. If you overextend it, it just doesn't work, and Cyberport was perfect for that. It was a really nice environment. There was everything we wanted there, there was power, there were toilets, there was security. It just felt really cosy."
But the venue was small and, as the festival grew, the organisers knew it was a matter of time before noise complaints started coming in. "It was never going to work. We were so stressed out through the whole thing, worried about when we were going to get complaints and how we were going to handle the police," Hill says.
The team brainstormed ideas to avoid noise complaints including one doomed-to-fail scheme that involved bands playing in giant sound-proofed cubes, but the writing was on the wall; by 2010 the powers that be had had enough.
"We were basically homeless. We tried Victoria Park. We went on Google maps flying over the whole of Hong Kong looking for any green spot. We tried golf courses … everything," Forster says.
Although Clockenflap was forced into hiatus for a year, the eviction proved to be the push the festival needed. Eventually it found a home at the newly inaugurated West Kowloon Cultural District. The larger venue allowed the festival to expand in fresh and exciting ways, adding stages and expanding the art, film and food offerings. The new location also had a magic all its own: a swath of green on the water, surrounded by the glittering towers of the Hong Kong skyline. The singular setting helped the festival garner interest from performers from all over the world. Jack Steadman from Bombay Bicycle Club won't forget the first time he took the stage in Hong Kong. "It was one of the most memorable gigs we've ever played, and easily the best view from any stage I've been on. It was a very special moment."
Mike Orange from local band Chochukmo felt it too: "We were lucky enough to play around the time of sunset, with the stage facing Victoria Harbour. Playing in front of the beautiful coastline of Hong Kong, facing the beautiful sunset and a beautiful crowd full of passion. What more could you ask for?"
The 2011 edition was a major coup for live music in the city. More than 18,000 people watched live bands and international headliners such as Bombay Bicycle Club and Santigold, and the press lavished praise on the event. But for the organisers it was hardly an economic triumph. Because of internal rules at the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, they were not allowed to sell tickets. Unwilling to give up, Hill, Sweeting and Forster decided Clockenflap would proceed as a free festival. But, with sponsors taking up less than 10 per cent of expenses, they ended up paying mostly out of their own pockets.
In ways they couldn't have foreseen, their magnanimity would come back to bite them this year.
Having worked through the ticketing issues, this year's festival was announced as the ticketed festival it had always been. The reaction from the public, mostly online, was extreme: people accused them of being greedy in charging for tickets. Many who wrongly believed Clockenflap had always been a free event felt the founders were betraying the original ethos of the event.
Even now, Hill looks hurt about the backlash. "You could say that we personally, from our pockets, funded Hong Kong's biggest free party. So, when people are publicly calling us greedy, it stings.
"The thing is that it is not good for something like this to be free. Free doesn't exist. The money has to come from somewhere, so it would either come from the government or it would come from sponsorship. By not being free it allows us to create something that is actually true to what the origins of this are all about, making a really good festival. This way we have complete freedom."
Anyone doubting the value of spending real money for their tickets need only look at what is in store this year. The two-day event will be the biggest yet, with 25,000 people expected to attend. The venue has doubled in size since last year and the organisers are putting the new space to good use. There will be seven stages, a beer garden, a movie tent, a skate ramp, an area for visual and installation art, an expanded children's section, a cafe, a roller disco, a house of curiosities, and of course that giant cuckoo clock.
Hill is excited: "The best festivals and the best parties are those with a degree of exploration, where you get to walk about and you get sort of disoriented, so we're kind of heading towards that. You can make a choice. Do you go that way or do you go that way? And that's something we didn't have last year … It is going to feel like a real festival. That's the most exciting part."
All of that exploring is sure to work up an appetite and this year the organisers are reaching out to local eateries and food providers such as Flying Brats, Homegrown Food and Posto Pubblico in the hopes Clockenflap will become a mecca for foodies too.
If the bar has been raised this year, the talent set to perform is easily keeping pace. As usual Clockenflap will showcase local acts, with about 70 per cent of bands coming from Hong Kong, alongside big names from all over the world including Britain's groundbreaking Primal Scream, hip hop pioneers De La Soul, Harlem's wild child Azealia Banks and winners of this year's Mercury Music Prize, Alt-J. And, if the rumours are true, there are more big names to be announced.
What started as the dream of frustrated music lovers has become, through hard work and a passionate fan-base, something truly special.
Bombay Bicycle Club guitarist Jamie MacColl says of his first Clockenflap: "We really didn't know what to expect before the gig, we'd never played in Hong Kong and were unsure if we even had any fans there. However, as soon as we stepped on stage we knew it was going to be a special gig, the crowd threw themselves into a mad frenzy and we left the stage with giant smiles on our faces."
With experiences such as these, musicians and music fans alike should be clamouring to get to Clockenflap for many years to come.
Dec 1-2, 12pm-10pm, West Kowloon Cultural District, HKS390-HK$690, ticketflap.com