Hong Kong’s bright neon lights, endless skyscrapers, and bustling roads have all cemented it as one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world. It’s also this sleepless image that has inspired the electronic, cyberpunk aesthetic adopted by films like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. It should be no surprise then that there’s a strong wave of individuals that are putting headphones on, bringing laptops out, and spinning turntables, all in an effort to nurture and maintain an electronic music scene in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s history with electronic music is a deep and complex one. The mid 20th century saw a cultural boom in cities everywhere, and Hong Kong – being the crossroads for East and West – was no different. Everyone remembers the Golden Age of pop culture and Cantopop in the 70s and 80s. Artists like Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui, and Beyond dominated local radio stations, and forged a new identity for Hongkongers from a fusion of international musical influences. Similarly, disco fever in the West had seeped into the bloodstream of energetic, young creatives here in Hong Kong. Venues like Disco Disco and Canton Disco dared to challenge the norm of only posh, swanky hotels such as the Peninsula having electronic parties. These new clubs ushered in a new, carefree attitude where anyone was welcome, and everyone knew how to have a good time. Secret underground raves were also often held on the outlying islands. Sadly for some, as we approached the new millennium, Hong Kong became increasingly more commercial, and culturally was no longer as outwardly supportive of the devil-may-care approach that characterised the decades prior.
宀 (Mihn). Photograph: David Teng
This brings us to the present day, where our city regularly hosts massive festivals like Clockenflap and Sonar, but to many, the scene falls short of filling the middle-ground in catering to show goers, and being conducive to the development of a music environment that’s nurturing for smaller acts. But there are many who are trying to bridge that gap, and recognise the advantages Hong Kong has in creating a thriving underground electronic scene.
宀 (Mihn) has been operating their space in Sheung Wan since 2018. A safe space that welcomes anyone, the parallels between this club and the disco clubs of the 80s are undeniable. “The venue focuses on bringing people together through carefully selected electronic music acts…it is a place where all races, genders and sexual identities are welcome,” the team behind the club shares with us. When discussing the music environment in Hong Kong, the 宀 team notes that the city is such a diverse melting pot of cultures that anyone can find their audience and create a niche. “The advantage of Hong Kong comes from the array of different people coming into the city, and the openness locals have towards other cultures,” they explain – and up-and-coming local DJ duo Zepa Records, made up of Mansai and Christopher Lai, agree. “Its metropolitan and international crowd gives Hong Kong an edge…there is a growing appetite for new sounds,” they tell us.
Another big reason for the HK electronic scene’s recent success is the growth of social media. Anyone who’s visited Hong Kong can see how connected everything is, and many in the electronic music scene see this as a major advantage. Finsent Chan is a part of the music collective Cipher, who organise secret raves that focus on deep electronic music with psychedelic influences. “Information is very easily accessible here, especially via the internet,” he says, and it’s easy to understand what he means. Venues like 宀 can now market their events and find their niche through social media, which allows them to reach a larger audience, and also make their events more accessible. While Finsent understands the importance of adapting to the digital age, Cipher’s events are still kept quiet, and you have to contact them directly to get details. “It could filter out some people who don’t know what they’re getting into,” he jokes.
Florian Melinette. Photograph: Janice Fuertes
Of course, there’s always the other side to the story. While Hong Kong remains a prototypical big city, some believe that its cultural zenith may have passed by. “The biggest challenges are logistical and financial,” says Florian Melinette, the co-founder of local event organiser and artist collective FuFu Creative. “Licenses in Hong Kong are expensive, and the process of getting one can be complicated,” he explains. Rents are also sky-high here, meaning securing a suitable venue often means shelling out a lot of cash. Local DJs Mr. Ho and Nanogram both agree that this is the biggest issue standing in the way. As a result, ticket prices are often pushed up just for promoters and venues to break even. Another major obstacle is the lack of support in the larger community. “In Hong Kong, the scene is often vilified,” the 宀 team share, before telling us that the only way to survive as a venue is to adhere to the stringent regulations in a way that “stifles many other independent venues from getting on their feet.”
With Hong Kong slowly reopening, many of those in the city’s electronic music had a chance to reflect on the difficult months they’ve just been through. “The pandemic killed the scene for a few months; no payment for DJs, no revenue for promoters and clubs,” Melinette states. While the effects of coronavirus are clear, some also consider it a silver lining. Zepa explain that DJs have had to explore different mediums to reach their audience, which might help them adapt in the future, and the 宀 team reveal that “people have been forced to pay more attention to the local acts, and it’s a great chance for them to build a following.” So even through this struggle, the electronic music scene hasn’t completely died down.
Numbers have been growing consistently since the Shi Fu Miz festival’s inception in 2016, with 3000 people attending in 2019. Heading into its fourth year, the festival has grown into one of the most respectable events in the Asian calendar, alongside Wonderfruit in Thailand and Organik in Taiwan. In addition to the positive trend in local festivals, other stalwarts in the music scene are doing their bit to fill in the gaps between event dates. 宀 has committed to consistent events, such as their industrial techno focused Entropy nights, or their LGBTQ Host dance parties. Nanogram and Mr. Ho both sing the praises for the team, and that it’s a “bold and risky commitment”, but the 宀 team’s persisting vision of inclusivity and unadulterated fun have proven successful, with their events being very popular with music enthusiasts.
Cipher continues to organise their raves, often in conjunction with 宀. In speaking to people within the scene, it’s clear there’s a strong sense of community, and that this ecosystem relies on each other to thrive, with venues collaborating with organisers, who seek out the best DJs, who can then put on a great show. There's mutual support on all sides, and that makes newer DJs like Nanogram and Zepa feel there’s a welcoming fraternity for them to develop and flourish.
Looking to the future, many are hopeful, but with what can only be described as cautious optimism. “The outlook is promising in Hong Kong, knowing that there are many dedicated and passionate people working for their artistic vision in the electronic music scene here,” says Nanogram, and other DJs like Mr. Ho and Zepa both agree. Melinette tells us that the success of the scene in the future heavily depends on the circumstances, whether that be further governmental support or a cultural shift, and whatever the situation, he reinforces that “you have to be ready to work super hard” if you want to succeed in Hong Kong.
Echoing this idea, the 宀 team say that for the scene to continue thriving it must “create a space for both local and overseas artists who attract both local and international audiences, with the idea that music has the power to communicate across cultural divides”. But the 宀 team also choose not to speculate too much about the future, insisting that dancing to great music is a fleeting experience, but also a beautiful moment. “Here at 宀 we often refer to it as that moment when you stop thinking about your problems and focus on the music, your body and your spirit” they share, and as the world becomes increasingly more uncertain, maybe they’re right. While the scene looks to be headed in the right direction, whatever happens, music has always been about removing yourself temporarily, dancing, and just having a great time. Yu An Su