Why Hong Kong’s buskers are becoming vocal critics
Some street performers are starting to wonder if regulations might be needed to weed out the dire displays and give more opportunity to engaging acts
Ophei Kwok Fung-wa has been busking for several years and whenever the police ask her to leave or keep the volume down, she always complies. But a few months ago, she and her friends had to call the cops on some fellow buskers in Tsim Sha Tsui – they were just too loud.
“Sometimes you’ll see people with huge amplifiers…and we just have two small amplifiers,” says Kwok, a part-time airport worker.
“We tried negotiating, but they refused to turn down their volume and we couldn’t hear ourselves play. That’s the only reason why we called the cops.
“I’d rather that neither of us get to perform; it had already become noisy. The people walking by and listeners would be uncomfortable.”
Kwok started busking two years ago. She and a few friends had been practising on their guitars and, as it was around Christmas, they decided to try performing on the streets. The friends picked a spot outside the Cultural Centre and played from 2pm until after midnight.
Busking – performing in a public space, often for donations – has become more popular in Hong Kong in recent years. Which is why high-traffic spots near the ferry piers, in the subways around Tsim Sha Tsui and on Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mong Kok can sometimes get pretty crowded and noisy.
The government hasn’t tried to control busking so far. If someone makes a noise complaint, the police will simply record the performers’ ID numbers and then ask them to leave.
Some buskers complain that they are often treated like beggars, although street performers can greatly enrich city life. Others, however, are starting to wonder if some regulation might be needed to weed out the dire displays and give more opportunity to more engaging street performers.
Under the Offences Ordinance, anyone performing with musical instrument on a public street is required to secure a permit from the Commissioner of Police. Those who fail to do so may face a H$500 fine and up to three months in jail.
The chances of getting a permit are pretty good: everyone who applied for one succeeded, with 49 permits issued in 2014 and 26 in the first 10 months of this year.
The problem was figuring out how to apply for a street performance permit. Until about a month ago, the police website did not provide information on such applications but a recent High Court appeal has made the process easier.
At a hearing in September, Mr Justice Patrick Li Hon-leung overturned an earlier magistrate’s ruling that imposed a HK$1,200 fine on a man for performing with a guitar and harmonica in front of the Hung Hom MTR station without a permit.
The judge noted that the ordinance does not make clear how performers can apply for a permit, what the criteria are, or how much it will cost.
“The process is neither transparent nor convenient,” he wrote, adding that the lack of transparency made things difficult for buskers wishing to apply for a permit.
The police have since added a form and guidelines to their website for buskers wishing to apply for a permit.
Among busking enthusiasts, 24-year-old Hinry Lau Cheuk-hin has now become something of a cause célèbre.
The surveyor, who was chosen to take part in the mainland reality TV show Voice of China last year, enjoys performing on the streets. But while performing outside the Kwun Tong MTR station a few months ago, Lau, too, found himself at odds with railway staffers who asked him to leave. He refused, arguing that it was a public space; they could call the police if they felt he was causing a nuisance and he would only move if officers asked him to.
True to his word, he left when the officers arrived.
Many officials still equate busking with begging even though the public is starting to recognise the difference, Lau says. Government officials’ arbitrary decisions on which acts constitute art proved so frustrating that he even wrote a song about it.
Arguing that the government should let culture develop organically, Lau cites the street performer scheme in the West Kowloon Cultural District as an example of rigid programmes that won’t work.
The scheme sets out designated areas in the district where buskers can apply to perform after auditions, but Lau believes the idea is flawed.
“The government thinks that if you put buskers there people will come, but the logic isn’t sound. Buskers draw crowds because a lot of people are in those places in the first place. Now the government is thinking backwards, they create a space in an isolated area and call it busking.”
Few people are as familiar with the local busking scene as Beda Tse Lap-tak. The founder of the HK Busking site, 31-year-old Tse has been making clips of street performers for his YouTube and Facebook pages for more than a year.
It all started after an argument with his girlfriend; as Tse stormed over to an outlying island to cool off, the IT professional was captivated by two buskers playing by the Central ferry piers and decided to help by posting a video of the pair. After that, he began recording performances of buskers whenever he had time after work or over the weekends, sometimes with his girlfriend, who is also a music lover.
Tse has noticed so many more buskers surfacing in the past months, he wonders if it has become a bit of a fad.
The growing numbers are marked by a varying quality of performance, he says. There are serious musicians and artists intent on improving their work and sharing it with passers-by, and then there are the exhibitionists.
These are “people who would have gone to the karaoke otherwise, but they know how to play the guitar and they have amplifiers so they’ll play on the streets”, Tse says. “There are more people like this. Is it a good thing for the community?”
On his Facebook page, he described a recent encounter with a busker who was blasting music through a 50W amplifier by the Tsim Sha Tsui pier. It was so loud, the fishermen were all grumbling. But when Tse suggested that the busker lower his volume, the man refused, saying “No one will listen if the music isn’t loud enough”.
Such behaviour, Tse says, “ leads to misconceptions about buskers”.
“As soon as people see a group of young people gathering, they’ll complain about them blocking the street and being noisy and not being very good. There’ll always be people like that…the serious buskers will suffer as a result.”
While busking is a form of self-expression, Tse says street performers should consider the situation from their audience’s point of view.
“If you have nothing to share, or you only have some random rumblings, then it’s not a lot of fun for listeners.
“Of course, buskers don’t need to draw crowds, but when space is so limited, like in Hong Kong, as a listener, you want a comfortable environment rather than having six bands in Tsim Sha Tsui all playing at the same time.”
To improve street culture, he suggests policymakers should consider the role that buskers can play and hence the type of performer they should accommodate: people who just want to have some fun singing on the street instead of a karaoke lounge, musicians who regard busking as an alternative platform for performance, or the destitute who trying to earn enough for a few meals?
New York and Sydney issue permits for buskers, while Taipei requires applicants to audition before they can perform on the streets. But such schemes may not work in Hong Kong because it means a handful of officials decide what kind of music is allowed on the streets, Tse says.
However, he reckons the experience of Tai Koo Place may offer some pointers to the way forward: property managers were none too pleased when buskers began playing at the Quarry Bay site a few years ago. But the performances drew crowds at lunchtime and now busking is not only tolerated, managers help schedule performances.
“I hope busking can be a part of our culture, so we’re not just limited to shopping and movies for entertainment,” Tse says. “It’s a boon for music fans and... for stressed Hongkongers.”
Besides a few foreign buskers, a growing number of Hongkongers find satisfaction in street performances. Here are a few of the more impressive acts around town:
Yeung, who has been busking for two years, plays acoustic pop, usually at Times Square or around Central. He says that his influences vary, but lately he’s been listening to indie music from Taiwan and electronic music.
Bonbon Wong Suet-ip
Wong’s voice is “soft and surreal” and her covers of songs by indie Taiwanese band Sodagreen are as “healing” as the original, Beda Tse says. Usually found playing in Tsim Sha Tsui, her performances are the most popular of the buskers he has recorded, accounting for 10 per cent of views.
Vocals: Keith Chung; guitars: Hin and Ah Ki; cajon: Nic.
Redhouse are one of the most outstanding busking groups in Hong Kong, and attract crowds whenever they busk, Tse says. They regularly perform on Saturdays at the Tsim Sha Tsui ferry pier, and vocalist Chung has even been dubbed the “Jay Chou of Tsim Sha Tsui.” The group covers classic Mandarin songs from Taiwan.
Jason Cheung has been busking for three years, plays acoustic music and heavy metal, and usually performs in Kwun Tong, Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui, and Mong Kok. He’s inspired by movie soundtracks and people talking loudly in the streets. Cheung is also a vocalist in local bands Zennen, and Oyyeh.
Relief has been busking for two years and uses a variety of ethnic instruments including a flute, mouth harp and didgeridoo. He adds a modern electronic twist by looping melodies played on the instruments to create a song from scratch in front of onlookers. He often appears on the footbridge outside IFC in Central, in front of the HSBC branch on Cameron Road , Tsim Sha Tsui , Causeway Bay, Sai Kung and the outlying islands. He also performs at live music venues.