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Hong Kong gigs

With opening of 1563 at the East, Hong Kong’s live music scene gets a welcome boost

New Wan Chai venue will fill the gap left by the closure of Central’s Backstage Live, with industry luminary Vicky Fung helping to set music policy while the landlord handles the operations

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 August, 2016, 8:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 August, 2016, 8:01am

About one year ago when Backstage Live in Central shut down after eight years of operation, co-founder Vicky Fung thought she would never have another chance to run a live music venue providing Hong Kong musicians with a stage to showcase their talents.

But about six months ago, the singer-songwriter received a mysterious phone call that changed her mind – and a call that could possibly change Hong Kong’s live music scene as well, as it led to the creation of 1563 at the East, a new live house and restaurant which opened in Wan Chai this month.

Hong Kong’s rent squeeze forces music venue Backstage Live to close

“I was told a business owner wanted to create something new to show support for live music. But I said I wasn’t interested in owning a live house,” recalls Fung, who was still recovering from her experience with Backstage Live, which was driven out after the landlord raised the rent by 30 per cent.

It turned out that Fung – who in the months since Backstage Live’s closure had curated the odd music programme for West Kowloon Cultural District – was not being asked to be a business partner this time. It was Hopewell Promotion and Entertainment Limited, a subsidiary of property developer Hopewell Holdings Limited, that wanted to renovate one of its shops at the Hopewell Centre in Wan Chai, and asked Fung if she could contribute her experience to the new venture as a consultant.

Hopewell also runs Kitec in Kowloon Bay, home to the music venues Star Hall, which can house up to 3,600 people and has showcased top musicians such as Bob Dylan, and Music Zone, a smaller venue that can accommodate 400 to 600 people.

Fung eventually decided to take the opportunity. “It’s very difficult to find an owner who is willing to invest in a live house. And now I can focus on the music instead of taking care of the business side of the venue,” she says.

Fung says 1563 at the East is spread over about 6,000 sq ft and can accommodate 200 to 300 people – tripling the capacity of Backstage Live. The size of the stage and control booth at 1563 at the East are double the size of Backstage Live’s, and there’s also a private room for musicians to rest and change. Hopewell also invested a hefty amount in the venue’s acoustics on Fung’s recommendations.

The venue had its soft opening at the start of the month, and has already hosted gigs by local indie luminaries such as Chet Lam, Hey Rachel and Hippogroove. “I hope to support local music. Therefore, 60 to 70 per cent of the time will be dedicated to Cantonese music. The rest of it will be reserved for non-Cantonese music,” Fung says.

“People complain about the local scene, moaning about the death of music here. But my eight years of running Backstage Live taught me that this was not true,” she says. “Hong Kong has many talented musicians and they are very active, even though the number might be small. There just hasn’t been a chance for people to learn about them.”

When putting together the programme and selecting musicians to play, Fung says she wants to use an audience’s perspective. “Audiences need accessibility. If you dump a new genre of music on them, it is going to be a turn-off. They want music that is easy to digest at the beginning, and then we can expose them to different kinds of music,” she says.

Fung says 1563 at the East will highlight Western musical influences every Wednesday in a programme titled “Wild West”. “The music ranges from reggae to Latin and rockabilly. People just don’t know that many musicians in Hong Kong are specialising in these genres,” she says.

Every Thursday and Friday will see open-mic nights, in which audience members can sing with a live band. But is this just another version of karaoke?

“This is not karaoke. There is a live band,” she says. “People have grown too comfortable hiding in a karaoke box. But singing on stage with a live band is different. Hong Kong people have been too shy. This gives people a chance to step outside of their comfort zone and to be themselves.”

Eviction looms again for live house Hidden Agenda, a nurturing ground for indie music

Every Saturday night Fung will test audiences with heavier and psychedelic music during the Midnight Express programmes, which kick off at 10.30pm.

The musicians playing at the new venue are excited that they have a different stage to perform on, particularly as live houses find it difficult to operate in Hong Kong due to high rent and stringent regulations. Apart from Backstage Live, Musician Area was also closed last year, while the future of Hidden Agenda in Kwun Tong is also under a cloud yet again.

Local band Nowhere Boys will have a gig at 1563 at the East on August 16, sharing the stage with up-and-coming actor-musician Neo Yau Hok-sau, star of She Remembers, He Forgets and Ten Years. “I have a lot of expectations of 1563. Performing at a live house is crucial for musicians to grow, but there aren’t that many quality live houses in the city,” says Nowhere Boys member Van Chan Wik-rok.

Fung hopes 1563 at the East will expose a new sector of society to Hong Kong’s music scene – particularly property owners who don’t have to worry about rent issues.

“Is it possible that everyone in the city could play different roles and work together? The landlord could manage the venue while hiring professionals to take care of the music,” she says. “If we can collaborate more, Hong Kong will have more possibilities.”

For more information about 1563 at the East, visit http://www.1563.com.hk/