Hong Kong’s Mong Kok street performers are not music to the ears – at their current volume at least
Peter Kammerer says the caterwauling in Mong Kok should be replaced by performers whose quality has been vetted so that talented amateurs have a chance to shine
Mong Kok is a place I go only if absolutely necessary. The crowds I can take; it is the noise I can’t.
The biggest culprit is Sai Yeung Choi Street South, where on weekends and public holidays, pedestrianised sections are turned into a free-for-all for wannabe singers. Enterprising types are apparently using the public area to rent equipment and space to the rankest of amateurs, resulting in a cacophony of competing wailing that numbs the senses and urges movement elsewhere.
Talented buskers avoid the street; they set up in places where they can be heard and appreciated. They have every right to and Hong Kong needs them; the culture of a city should be seen and cherished everywhere, the streets included.
But it is those who erroneously think they can also hold a tune or play an instrument who give the street, and in consequence the district, a bad name. Proof that they lack ability is plainly on show in the cranked-up amplification they wrongly believe is a necessary part of entertainment.
Of course, the amplifiers are also necessary to help compete against the warbling of other singers; the entrepreneurs who operate the “music stalls”, from which payment of HK$100 (US$12.70) or so gives the right to perform a few songs, have factored that into their business plan.
The police can’t do much about it, even though there are laws against causing a public disturbance. For every untalented person who has the volume on their amp turned to 11 given a warning or told to stop, there is another eagerly waiting to step in when the officer goes away.
Little wonder shop owners and residents have long been calling for action to silence the noise pollution.
I can suggest a few solutions. One I’ve been thinking about, to mute the off-key amateurs who perform in the public space near the escalators to Times Square, Causeway Bay, the building in which I work, has overtones of terrorism.
One performer uses extreme amplification on his electric guitar that is so loud that I become disorientated; the visually-impaired often develop acute hearing to compensate for lack of sight. In my mind, I would turn towards the source of the racket and march directly at it and when the startled man stops, I would ask him to guide me to my office.
Sai Yeung Choi Street South, being a much bigger area, would require a more concentrated and coordinated blind-person attack.
But that is fantasy. A better way to deal with the problem is to employ a method in wide use in busking zones elsewhere – regulating through permits and auditions.
This is what happens in Covent Garden in London, arguably the world’s premier venue for street performers. With a history of such entertainment dating back to the 17th century, it has in place a well-developed system in which variety and circus performers and classical vocalists and instrumentalists front a judging panel four times a year for three-minute auditions, from which acts are chosen for the larger busking spaces. The types of instruments are regulated and no amplification is allowed.
Sai Yeung Choi Street South is no Covent Garden; it’s just another venue for street performing, like Temple Street, the Star Ferry pier at Tsim Sha Tsui and Times Square, among many others. As a place to showcase to tourists Hong Kong’s culture, it’s an embarrassment. If its tone-deaf vocalists and their ear-splitting amplification is too much for locals, why should we expect it would be appealing for visitors?
Hong Kong has no shortage of talented amateur vocalists and instrumentalists and we should instead be ensuring the prominent street stage for them.
Covent Garden is too strict a model to adopt, but the basics of a registration system and auditions make good sense. Cultural and arts groups should take the lead in turning the pedestrian zone from an outdoors karaoke club run by unsanctioned profiteers into a properly-managed entertainment area that we can be proud of.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post