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Are we going under?

January 12th, 2012 · No Comments

On New Year’s Eve, hundreds of Hongkongers were honouring the end  of two pioneering underground  sites – the techno and house club Yumla and the livehouse Hidden Agenda located in Hong kong  property. Shortly before that, other venues like  The Warehouse youth centre and a smattering of beach clubs located on the south side of Hong Kong Island bid farewell to live music gigs and outdoor parties until further notice.
This unsettling  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  troubles  with the different government departments, problems involving noise complaints, or  getting  the right licences and permits. And for the venue owners and supporters that stay behind, they’re resorting to ‘creative choices’ just to keep  their properties afloat.

For Yumla’s Dan Findlay, his tiny, underground club was kept alive longer than he expected: “I always knew rent would eventually choke Yumla out of the market, but nine years was much longer than I expected.” From the time it opens  in 2003, Yumla has long been claimed as the topnotch 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 had made searching for  an affordable venue  tremendously simple. The space was in the past utilized by the ‘legendary’ bar Phi-B, and prior to that it was a disused rice storage facility with no direct access from street level. Still, a long-overdue  repair, coupled with multiple changes in ownership  that result in a considerable rent hike, made it not possible to keep the Yumla as we know it going. “It could just about remain in its present 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 confronting underground venues aren’t only centered in Central. Out in Kwun Tong, Hidden Agenda made it to the  headlines earlier last year due to its continuing (and courageous) fight in acquiring the correct permits to function as a music venue.

“The Lands Department still operates under a very old policy,” says Wong Ah-kok from the Revilatization Independence Partnership, which aided 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 coming back of their respective venues in some shape or form, but neither of the two is sure of when and where. The team at Hidden Agenda have already been searching  at potential new spaces, but as expected, almost all of them are much  beyond their  earlier rent ceiling.

Gratefully, despite of these musical dismal straits, there are still available  spaces serving the alternative public; owners have just had to apply their creativity 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  varied as movie nights and international DJ evenings (not to mention ping pong tournaments and art exhibitions).

Taking into consideration that Enso is backing the project personally, he naturally had to be creative in finding an affordable space. A former bank storage facility on Sheung Wan’s Wing Lok Street fit his budget, and after hefty make-over, became the ideal multi-use venue he had wished for. Unfortunately, fire and safety regulations meant that XXX was not able to acquire 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  continuously 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 a much simpler words, anyone who is at all interested in the clubbing and live music scenes of Hong Kong should have something to  contribute and not just consume.


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