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How Hong Kong Learnt to Love Rock Music

Posted: 20/12/2012 12:00

Hong Kong has always held itself in high esteem as Asia's beating financial and commercial heart, but Clockenflap, a music and arts festival that's managed to stake out its territory on the banks of Victoria harbour overlooking Hong Kong's famous skyline, is rallying against everything corporate and clean-cut in the region. While a new wave of Asian rock and alternative music sweeps across blossoming pockets of the continent from inland China to outlying Indonesia, the pioneering festival, which took this December, is making sure the affluent self-governing state keeps up with music culture developments elsewhere.

Despite being home to a well-oiled Cantonese pop machine that competes effortlessly with the Korean and Japanese counterparts making waves not far overseas, alternative and grassroots music culture have long suffered in the region. The sheer density and cost of living in Hong Kong leaves aspiring musicians - lacking everything from decent practice spaces to the venues to perform in - are caught in a perpetual uphill struggle. Add to that a staggering level of government rules and restrictions that seem intent on snuffing out the best intentions of any would-be promoter, and its a wonder anyone other than the biggest hitters attracting largely expat audiences (like Sting and Elton John who are playing in town the same week too) ever manage to put on a show.

But now in its fourth year, Clockenflap is the only music festival of its kind to take place in Hong Kong. It is credited for the pioneering role it has played in nurturing the Chinese indie and alternative music scenes. As well as bringing international artists to Chinese audiences, this year including Primal Scream, Azealia Banks and recent Mercury Music Prize winners Alt J, it features top billing sets from native indie rockers Chochukmo, Jun Kung, the eccentric, Flaming Lips-esque G La G La Di Guo, and Philippine punks Sandwich.

The festival is a labour of love funded by private investment - this year is the first its organisers Mike Hill and Justin Sweeting have charged for entry, but they've said they still expect to make a loss. If the event's motive right now isn't profit then it is to be the first surfing the zeitgeist of a deeper cultural shift that they anticipate in Asian youth culture, as part of Asia's broader economic rise.

Right now the concept of a festival is still so alien for Hong Kong citizens that its website even feels compelled to explain itself in such sweetly naïve terms: "[Festivals are] well known in certain parts of the world, but the idea is still fresh in Hong Kong. For those who are curious, the idea is to arrive as early as possible, explore the area, eat, drink, unwind, enjoy arts (some of which are interactive) and films, and see great performances from high-calibre international and local acts."

But Clockenflap's baby steps are gathering pace and quickly resembling a more adult stride - in its first year it attracted 2500 punters, this year across the weekend the number is closer to 10,000. In a city as globalised as Hong Kong it's unsurprising that at least half the audience are non-native Chinese, and critics might argue that the wholesale export of this distinctly Western concept can only ever lead to a watered-down experience when executed in a region where it has no roots of its own.

This would be missing the point. Clockenflap's gradual growth and transition will continue at a pace that matches the Asian artists who themselves are often the first generation to have been brought up with access to independent and alternative music. While the Western old guard might still be making yearly trips over to get up on stage and show Asia what it's been doing for decades, Clockenflap will be able to say it's reached full maturity when it's the next generation Asian bands that are taking top billing, singing from the stage with a voice that's truly their own.

 

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