WAN CHAI WONDERLAND
WHEN the organisers of this year's Wan Chai International Music Festival announced the two-day rock bonanza would take on a more cosmopolitan flavour, most fans began dreaming of international rock acts treading the boards at the Southorn Arena.
Oh for a Billy Bragg, Grateful Dead or even Suzanne Vega, they mused. Now, though, as details of the October 23 and 24 festival emerge, it seems the most intriguing acts on the bill will come not from Manchester or Seattle but from north of the border.
Although the lid has been kept fairly tightly on the lineup of overseas acts, Australian rockers Ratcat and bhangra favourite Apache Indian are confirmed.
Mark Thompson, the young entrepreneur who managed to get the best Hong Kong bands on one bill last year, has high hopes for a festival he would like to see become a regular event on the world stage.
''In the long-term I would like this to become Asia's biggest event,'' he said.
''I have already booked the 30,000-capacity Government Stadium for 1994. I am confident that it's going to take off.
''This year we are still at the Southorn Arena, which holds about 10,000, so I regard this year as a stepping-stone event, where I can invite medium-size Western names and start to bring in top regional talent.'' And so to the mainland. Mr Thompson particularly wants to create a strong relationship with Chinese bands and management.
He is enthusiastic about what the event can do not only for Hong Kong Chinese bands, but also mainland talent.
''I am very aware this is an Asian festival, and I want to make sure that it has, and will always have, Asian bands and artists playing.
''Even when I start inviting the really big names next year, I'm going to make sure that there are local Hong Kong bands represented and Chinese bands.
''I want this to be a real East-meets-West event - it will always be a mix of regional, local and Western music.'' To ensure this message gets across this year, Mr Thompson has invited a trio of top Chinese artists, and the bands approached have been delighted to accept.
Alas, China's most newsworthy band, MTV favourite Tang Dynasty, was pencilled in and keen to attend, but last-minute visa problems meant it had to postpone until next year.
However, the festival has managed to bag Chen Jing, Ai Jing and all-girl Beijing rock band Cobra.
''The great thing about these three is that, like most mainland artists, they show a great deal more invention and have a great deal more energy than Hong Kong Canto-pop singers,'' said Mr Thompson.
He is perhaps most enthusiastic about the inclusion of folk singer and social commentator Ai Jing.
''I really like what she does,'' he said.
''She's kind of like a Chinese Suzanne Vega. She's getting an awful lot of airplay on MTV Asia at the moment, too.'' Ai recently released an album, My 1997 , an interesting mix of acoustic guitar, rock and Chinese traditional music.
The music is fresh - almost to the point of being naive - and typically derivative.
Chinese ''rock'' is still young and still finding its feet, so it is in that delightful discovery period which throws up all kinds of new ideas, sounds and hybrids. Ai's music encapsulates that mood.
Chen, who will perform some numbers with Ai, also displays this open approach to composing and performing music.
A native of Beijing, his father schooled him in playing Chinese folk music until he discovered the Beatles and picked up a guitar.
He has since made his way through the musical spectrum to heavy metal, and his recordings and videos include punk, funk, reggae, thrash and folk influences.
Sometimes the resulting work is a little directionless, but often the eclectic mixture of styles, spiced with Chen's folk music roots, makes for interesting listening.
Expect more straightforward Californian rock 'n' roll from Cobra, five professionally trained musicians who belt out energetic and faultlessly performed numbers, and have been doing so for some years.
Staunchly apolitical (they claim to be neither anti-establishment nor feminist), their motivation is solely the performance of music which gives out lashings of positive energy.
Thanks to their style and music, they have picked up the lion's share of exposure from Western rock writers looking at China's burgeoning rock scene.
Mr Thompson is convinced Cobra's rocky sound will go down a treat at the festival, but is a little concerned Ai's acoustic efforts will get drowned out by what he hopes will be a seething, rowdy audience.
''She's either going to spellbind them or be completely ignored. I'm pretty sure it will be the former though.'' Mr Thompson was flattered by the enthusiastic response from all the Chinese bands and their management (although he diplomatically avoided comment on the Tang Dynasty pullout, despite rumours the band had fallen foul of mainland authorities).
He said he saw the strong response as proof the festival was doing all the right things at the right time.
''The Chinese bands are desperate to be exposed internationally - it's the thing that is most difficult to achieve in China,'' Mr Thompson said.
''They also feel that although Hong Kong is more Westernised, it is not entirely 'foreign' and therefore less daunting - kind of a halfway house.
''We have managed to get MTV Asia involved in this year's event, and they'll be doing a four-camera shoot and will be compiling an edited programme for a Week in Rock special.
''That's going to be shown five times in the week after the festival. That means big TV exposure for them [the Chinese].
''It also means that the big-name Western artists like Apache Indian and Ratcat will be seen by the enormous Asian market covered by STAR's footprint. Everybody wins.'' All the MTV Asia VJs will attend the festival, current anchor man Danny McGill and ex-VJ now budding pop star Andy Ingkavet will both be playing as part of the local band lineup (McGill with AZUR and Ingkavet with Hot Sauce). Joining them will be HUH!?, Infra Dig and Mothership.
Again, the festival appears to be offering the chance of a breakthrough.
''For local bands it is almost impossible to go beyond playing small clubs,'' explained Mr Thompson.
''There are no medium-sized venues and very little record industry interest.
''Basically, Canto-pop remains extremely profitable, so the record companies are quite happy to keep things as they are. It is much easier to adopt and package an individual than nurture a group.
''In Hong Kong, the only groups I know of that made it are Tai Chi and Beyond. What the festival does is to give local groups playing original music the chance to play with big-name bands with a good sound system to a large audience,'' he said.
''Who knows? There might even be A&R [artist and repertoire] people in the audience who are looking for new talent.'' With less than a month to go to the festival, Mr Thompson at last believes he has the event in hand, after three months of planning in which acts such as like the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Billy Bragg and PM Dawn were approached, and countless others considered.
Although the exact lineup remains a secret, it looks as if there will be 10 non-local acts appearing over the two days, with each day's entertainment beginning at 1 pm and going on into the night.
Admission is free and the event is a non-profit-making venture.
''We've got the mix of music right, we've got the sound system right, and the venue is just great. What more could you want?''