By Hans Ebert
It’s just not happening, is it? The more you leave Hong Kong and the more you get out there and meet and listen to bands and artists in places like Scandinavia, Melbourne, even in Singapore, one realises just what a music wasteland there is here- a so-called “scene” comprising the usual suspects and a pocketful of mumbles that are way too often known as mediocrity. It’s come to a point where it’s so hard to to stomach this pandemic of mediocrity and copycats and ageing musicians with no direction of home that there’s a need to let it all out like one long belch to get rid of the frustrations.
You listen to Kaleo from Iceland, the always interesting Mew from Denmark, and the no frills conversational confessional songs of Jack White and the frustration intensifies along with wondering whether The Donald has secretly built some wall to keep out the inspiration and talent to create music that is a million miles away from vapid, formulaic Canto Shlock and a dumbass attempt quite recently to create an Asian version of the Spice Girls. Hell, even the Spice Women probably cringe at the thought of the Spice Girls.
Apart from Sam Hui switching from being a Chinese guy in a band called the Lotus singing covers of hits by the Hollies, Kinks etc dressed like dandies to concocting what was labeled Canto-Pop, has there ever been anything approaching originality in Hong Kong when it comes to music? Not really though there have been the occasional niche side projects and Hidden Agenda event. Sam Hui and Canto-Pop was over forty years ago. OVER FORTY YEARS AGO. That’s a long time between drinks. What’s happened during this time other than the Hong Kong entertainment industry- its Cantonese music side- becoming one big outlet for money laundering? This has been allowed to continue and, in the process, grow and create false idols through greedy television and music executives working with an entertainment media, and all contributing towards creating a corrupt industry controlled and orchestrated by a handful of businessmen.
Nothing is what as it seems, and none of the numbers paid to many Canto popsters, their record labels, management companies and side businesses add up. The maths are stupidly transparent. Again, all this shows is Hong Kong’s total obsession with money- and making more money and talking incessantly about money- how much one could have made and living in a shrivelled up past and looking on at those who have succeeded with that green eyed monster despite the protestations of being happy for the successes of others.
The sad fact of Hong Kong life is that too many love to see others fail. If they could, they would probably throw a whoopee cushion party whenever- and business failures are becoming increasingly regular- another one bites the dust. And it in this environment- this constant negativity- that one is supposed to create music.
Where there’s no inspiration, there’s only depression and a lethargy to just continue to make ends meet and be another brick in the wall. It might be different in the Philippines, but for decades, Hong Kong has taken in Filipino musicians, some better than others, but, almost all, despite being technically brilliant, somehow incapable of creating anything original. Trying to even guide them towards this light at the end of the tunnel is met with startled and gormless expressions until one feels you’re speaking in a language not belonging on Mother Earth.
This leads to a domino effect that results in old school booking agents working hand in hand with hoteliers only interested in hiring female chanteuses from overseas for their looks and ability to warble a song in tune. That’s business and their bottom line is met. Don’t look to this species to bring originality to music in Hong Kong. If anything, they dumb it down even more. The audiences who drop into these hotel lounges believes that this is the standard of music in this town, and merrily clap like trained seals not understanding good from bad and just happy listening to a human karaoke machine on remote over a few beers. Veer from a note for note copy, and they get lost- if they’re even listening. It’s not like the record. Again, if they’re even listening.
This, of course, is a more mature and upwardly mobile audience who are clueless that the world has moved on from the “Come Away With Me” days of Norah Jones, and even the more contemporary- but vapid- Ellie Goulding. To them, yeah, it sounds okay, and okay is good enough.
There’s then those who constantly whine about lack of venues. Let’s say there are suddenly 4-5 brilliant venues opened for Jazz, for Rock, for whatever music that doesn’t even have a label because, well, music is music. Where’s the talent in Hong Kong to perform at these venues? Will there be a big enough audience to support these venues other than on Fridays and Saturdays? Will the bottom line for those managing these venues be more than breaking even? Who wants to start a business to break even? You’d be surprised how many owning restaurants and clubs run around like headless chicken McNuggets to break even. These are the same people who tell you what good businessmen they are. Really?
Getting back to music, what’s the solution to this decades old problem of keep on keeping on, but with none of it leading anywhere other than the usual three ring circus of Peel Fresco, Orange Peel and hotel lounges?
Imagine if just ONE of these five-star hotel lounges had the balls to move away from what old school booking agents peddle their way and bring in one of those incredible singers like EMRSN in Melbourne who always performs with an inventive and musically knowledgeable guitarist?
Yes, they perform covers for the crowd at Mr Hive in the Crown Metropole, but they make their covers, their own- everything from “Singing In The Rain” to “Mustang Sally” and “My Cherie Amour”. Would a duo like this turn off local audiences and tourists because they’re not singing karaoke shtick? Of course not.
Could this hotel lounge reinvent itself by having acts like this on a regular basis while also bringing something new to Hong Kong? Could this inspire the opening of new venues- venues as creative as the music they showcase and with strong marketing skills? And could these venues attract sponsors and investors other than the usual suspects from Macau who are truly passionate about music and proud to see an experimental and creative act like Clipping emerge from Hong Kong? I would like to think so.