By Hans Ebert
We’ll keep banging the drum loudly about what passes off as the Hong Kong “music scene”, because it desperately needs a new international lifeline, it needs new and young talent- local and from overseas- and it needs to stop being a dumping ground for mediocrity- largely, ageing middle of the road warblers booked by food&beverage managers at five-star hotels who don’t know jazz from jizz, are clueless about their customers, and worst of all, carrying on that “great tradition” known as back-handers.
It’s a well-known racket that’s been going on for decades- and has been allowed to carry on regardless as no one cares. After all, these are “only” lounge singers and covers bands, and not the more lucrative Canto Pop fat cats and Hello Kitty guys and dolls. And so, the scams continue under the radar- scams to do with work visas and who holds them, and what passes off as “management”.
Holding musicians to ransom- non-Hong Kong residents and those desperate for work and needing these work visas to do so- is a pox on the present and future of a struggling music scene. This stumbling block that’s become such an issue the result of one particular bar offering hundreds of false “gigs”- and through this, work visas, a few years ago to, especially, Filipino musicians. Once this became known, as is usually the case in Hong Kong, the law went overboard into overdrive, and all sense of reasoning and common sense went out of the window only to be replaced by paranoia and, of course, those opportunists claiming they can “fix” working visas. One really has to wonder if Immigration would have been this strict if the guilty parties were not Filipinos…
All these alarm bells going off and strict rules and regulations just because some musicians are trying to earn a living? All this meaning Hong Kong’s small ‘live’ music scene is in the hands of a very “select” group of old school booking agents bringing more mediocrity to this city?
Something doesn’t make sense. Something stinks. And something must be done to change this asinine thinking by our geniuses in Immigration.
What’s baffling- as baffling as the influx of working ladies from Colombia and those from various parts of Africa offered refugee status in Hong Kong, and with this, a free pass to openly peddle drugs down Wyndham Street and outside the notorious Amazonia bar in Wanchai- is why the Immigration Department doesn’t clampdown on those involved- and why the Independent Commission Against Corruption doesn’t take a serious look into what’s been allowed to carry on for too long. This can’t be dismissed as being something “small” as it’s “only music”.
More to the point, if there is something like a bona fide Hong Kong Musicians Union with real clout and bite, it should fight for the Rights of its Members- Members of every nationality. But even here, the Hong Kong music scene is horribly divided, dysfunctional and with self-serving agendas.
There’s precious little “one for all and all for one”. It’s a fractured United Nations of Musicians with no trust anywhere due to the short supply of work to go around along with a long-term career- that is, IF you’re not Chinese, don’t sing in Cantonese or Mandarin, don’t have a recording contract with one of the majors, and are not managed by one of Hong Kong’s biggest and most powerful management groups like businessman Albert Yeung’s Emperor Entertainment Group.
“Uncle” Albert makes problems go away and makes stars of every artist on his roster- all being Chinese and all groomed to be Canto Pop “idols” with no shortage of sponsorship deals, huge concerts at the Coliseum and multi-million dollar movie roles. All that’s needed by these artists is to have a good stylist by their side.
Cleaning up these “working visa” games being played out might- just might- create a more vibrant and healthy music scene- a much-needed international music scene, and a more level playing field, one unshackled from the past, and without these “foreign” musicians basically being slaves to a system that’s totally flawed. It’s also a system that’s, too often, corrupt, crippling, and one more reason why the Hong Kong “music scene” remains so creatively stunted. So one-sided. And so petty.
There are more petty politics and jealousies than originality with musicians with way too much time on their hands and completely oblivious to the fact that they are simply not good enough. Legends in their own lunchtime swim around furiously in this spawning ground for big fish in a very small pond- that is unless a Canto Popster with all the power backing mentioned earlier.
A tip: Visit Toronto or Copenhagen or Taipei and see and hear what a thriving music scene filled with originality and musicians without outta whack egos can do for the image of a city.
Yet, Hong Kong venues that cater to a more international audience seem to inhale and thrive on mediocrity. What’s the point in having more venues for ‘live’ music when Hong Kong has such a pittance of good international talent? It’s just a circle game of mediocrity with the cocktails served being as unoriginal as the performances. Does the world really need another horrendous version of “Empire State Of Mind” or a cheap knock-off of Adele and a wannabe Rihanna? Where are the bands? Wherefore art thou, Originality?
As mentioned here so many times, the Filipino musicians are relegated to the Covers Band circuit, and appear happy to be stuck there. With their work visas in the hands of the clubs that have brought them to Hong Kong, they cannot move from this gig on Desolation Row. Then again, what other choices do they have when the Filipino musician has had a bad name in Hong Kong going back to the Eighties when accused of under-cutting local musicians and “stealing” their gigs? This stigma lasts today with a number of venues making it very clear that Filipino bands belong in Wanchai and not on centre stage. It’s an image thing. It’s also a racist thing.
Let’s not forget that when Filipina diva Regine Velasquez was signed to a recording deal in Hong Kong, the Chinese music executive supposedly guiding her career, titled her debut album “Listen Without Prejudice” despite George Michael having released a record with the same title. To add insult to injury, he decided to hide half her face on the cover, and chose one of the most bizarre selection of songs for the then 17-year-old to record. The record bombed despite the first single being a turgid ballad with Canto Pop’s “heavenly king” Jacky Cheung, where dear Regine was filmed to look an almost whiter shade of pale.
For the Filipino musician today, whether it’s in bar in Wanchai, it’s a gig, and better than life back in the Philippines for musicians who are either past their Use By Date, or simply cannot cut it with the excellent new musical talent back home. Anyone who thinks that every Filipino musician is only an unoriginal copycat has not been to the Philippines. Why some of these excellent bands and singers remain in the Philippines with their careers stuck in Adobo Road is a question for another day.
As for Hong Kong, the Filipino covers bands do what they do best- copy- whereas those sashaying through the five-star lounge circuit saddled with their work visa restrictions, resort to try and break free and be Django unchained- a dangerous move that can have them kicked outta Hong Kong.
We know of just such a case and where blatant attempts at bending the truth by one of these foreign singers on a six month contract with a hotel lounge almost ended in tears recently. No one can afford to think one white lie is okay, and that no one will be the wiser. There are no secrets in Hong Kong, and never think you can trust anyone with them. This place, when it comes to gossip amongst the MOR cocktail circuit, is worse than Wisteria Lane. There are some desperate people out there guarding their turf.
Still, the legalese behind these crippling work visas should be changed. But, again, with a “music scene” where the Big Money is only about backing Chinese artists, Western music, and those making it, need to have some divine intervention and knights in shining armour on their side to change things around- financially and radically.
Venues like The Wanch, the Hidden Agenda sessions, and many no longer around, have done a great job of trying to get something off the ground and be a starting point for new talent to get somewhere. But nothing done has amounted to anything.
What’s always been holding everything down has been no government intervention and commitment through something more productive and forward thinking than the useless CreateHK white elephant and the mistaken belief that young Hong Kong still cares about Canto Pop.
Canto Pop is irrelevant. It died over a decade ago when it was patently obvious that all those various local television faux awards show were a fix and there was big money at stake. That was the past and when unscrupulous television executives joined forces with heads of music companies and disc jockeys and controlled what was allowed to be seen and heard. Some of these executives are still being investigated on graft charges and the result of the high profile case of television executive Stephen Chan and his assistant should be interesting. It could just lift the lid on the decades of deceit involving the Canto Pop industry.
Music in English was virtually wiped off radio by those running the stations years ago, and with a vested interest in ensuring Cantonese pop was heard. Music channels like MTV Asia and Channel [V] had no chance competing for airtime in Hong Kong with a terrestrial television station as dominant when it came to ratings as HKTVB, its Chinese channel TVB Jade, and its cavalcade of awards shows where the winners were almost always pre-determined, especially those ubiquitous New Artists Of The Year.
The emphasis on Canto Pop and all the under-the-table deals and marriages of convenience still go on today along with all the fakery of The Voice China, where acts signed to major music companies in Hong Kong appear as unknowns in China while judges feign surprise at their “undiscovered” talent. Stop it. Please. And people wonder why the careers of anyone from these television karaoke talent shows go anywhere anymore? Their time has come and gone.
Hong Kong music fans have got wise to all these skims and scams and have walked away from what belongs to an older generation. These are also far more international music fans. The problem are those seen and heard making this music in Hong Kong. They are simply not good enough. Put that on Repeat.
Hong Kong audiences are being cheated from seeing truly good new talent from overseas- on a long-term basis. Clockenflap was good while it lasted and for what it was for three days. Did it help the Hong Kong music scene grow in any way? Tell me how.
Until the Hong Kong Tourism Board and sponsors like Burbury and powerful local organisations like the HKJC with their hardware in the way of venues start working with all the various consulates in this city to create a musical and cultural exchange programme, nothing will happen. What’s needed here is a melting pot of Rainbow Music.
Music in English, Western music, whatever you call any form of music that’s not Cantonese or Mandarin will be an endangered species and soon disappear if this does not happen and which will make for an extremely bland city already facing huge problems to do with a downturn in the economy, a brain drain and a retail sector that’s seen its bottom fall out.
If this complete neglect of Western music continues much longer, we’ll still be sitting at some hotel lounge watching rampant self-indulgence onstage and knowing why this is taking place and just how little those who should know about today’s audiences actually do. No matter how much this awful Muzak is pushed into the background, it’s not pushed back far enough. It should be kicked out of the door.
Get this turgid lounge circuit of mediocrity on the right track, and Western music just might have a chance of succeeding in “Asia’s world city”. Or is Hong Kong “Asia’s world city” anymore?