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The trials and tribulations of Hong Kong's underground venues

With soaring rents, complaining neighbours and the ongoing ‘permit situation’, Hong Kong’s underground venues are desperately struggling to survive. Report by Andrea Yu

On New Year’s Eve, hundreds of Hongkongers were honouring the demise of two pioneering underground venues – the techno and house club Yumla and the livehouse Hidden Agenda. Shortly before that, other venues such as The Warehouse youth centre and a smattering of beach clubs on the south side of Hong Kong Island said goodbye to live music gigs and outdoor parties until further notice.

This unnerving trend also seems to have spilled into many of the city’s well-loved alternative music and clubbing venues. If it’s not the problem of nose-bleeding rent, then it’s problems with various government departments, problems with noise complaints, or problems obtaining the proper licences and permits. And for the venue owners and supporters that do remain, they’re resorting to ‘creative alternatives’ in order to keep their properties afloat.

For Yumla’s Dan Findlay, his small, underground club was kept alive longer than he first imagined: “I always knew rent would eventually choke Yumla out of the market, but nine years was much longer than I expected.” Since opening in 2003, Yumla has long been hailed as the top underground spot in town (topping Time Out’s own list as the Best Club of 2010).

At the time Yumla opened, the post-SARS property market made finding an affordable venue extremely easy. The space was previously used by the ‘legendary’ bar Phi-B, and before that it was a disused rice storage facility without direct access from street level. Still, a long-overdue renovation, coupled with multiple changes in ownership resulting in a significant rent hike, made it impossible to keep the Yumla as we know it going. “[It] could just about continue in its current form if we paid the rent increase and didn’t do anything to refit… but that would mean suffering all the deficiencies of the property for a further two years – basically [running] Yumla into the ground until the next stupid rent increase finally killed us,” adds Dan.

The problems facing underground venues aren’t only concentrated in Central. Out in Kwun Tong, Hidden Agenda made headlines earlier last year for its continuing (and courageous) struggles in obtaining the proper permits to operate as a music venue.

“The Lands Department still operates under a very old policy,” says Wong Ah-kok from the Revilatization Independence Partnership, which assisted Hidden Agenda in negotiations with the Lands Department. “All music venues, galleries, theatres, etc, are not allowed in industrial areas – that’s against the land use.” So what can they do? “I think kicking us out is much easier than to change the policy,” he states.

Both Ah-kok and Dan hinted at the return of their respective venues in some shape or form, but neither is sure of when and where. The team at Hidden Agenda have already been looking at potential new spaces, but predictably, most of them are well beyond their previous rent ceiling.

Thankfully, in spite of these musical dire straits, there are still spaces serving the alternative public; owners have just had to think more innovatively in order to stay alive and well. DJ Enso opened the underground creative space XXX Gallery in May 2011 and has hosted a wagonload of events as diverse as movie nights and international DJ evenings (not to mention ping pong tournaments and art exhibitions).

Considering that Enso is funding the venture from his own pocket, he naturally had to get creative in finding an affordable space. A former bank storage facility on Sheung Wan’s Wing Lok Street fit his budget, and after hefty renovations, became the ideal multi-use venue he had hoped for. Unfortunately, fire and safety regulations meant that XXX was unable to obtain a liquor license to serve alcohol. But this wasn’t the end of the line for Enso. “When we realised that we weren’t going to be able to start selling drinks, we just decided to keep it all low key – BYOB,” he says. “We keep more of a private house party vibe going on. A lot of people came to like that because we’re the only place around where you can bring your own drinks.”

The clear and present danger which these underground venues constantly face is the ever-delicate balance between profitability exercises and maintaining integrity in the clubbing crowd. It’s truly no easy feat.

“[Ours] is not a moneymaking venture,” says Enso. “We’re just trying to cover our expenses and make a contribution to Hong Kong – and inspire people to think.”

While it may be too late for Yumla and Hidden Agenda, for the other venues which are up and running (and for those who are on the near horizon), Dan Findlay has sage words of advice: “Support your favourite DJs and producers by attending their events and buying their music. Support scenes by paying for tickets and not hassling promoters for free guest lists. And if you like being inside a club environment, then buy a few drinks inside and don’t whine about the cover charge.” In other words, anyone who is at all interested in the clubbing and live music scenes of Hong Kong should contribute and not just consume.

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