In Depth

Kenichiro Egami


Special Seminar


“The Underground music scene in HK in a ‘Post-Hidden Agenda’ period”


14th May 2019  @ Tokyo University of the Arts Daigakukan 2nd Floor Meeting Room



Speaker: Ahkok Wong (Musician, activist, and independent researcher)
Moderator/Interpreter: Kenichiro Egami (GA DC1)


We invited a musician/independent researcher, Akoh Wong, who is currently visiting Tokyo, to take part in a seminar on the independent music scene in Hong Kong in the 2000s and the transition of culture and art spaces in the Kwun Tong district.




Greetings and self-introduction by Mr. Akoh


Good evening, everyone. I’m glad to see so many people gathered here. It’s Akoh Wong. I am a native of Hong Kong and have spent the last 20 years working as an independent musician, activist, and college lecturer. I’m currently a Ph.D. student in folk music studies at the University of London, Goldsmith.


This time, I would like to talk about the independent music scene in Hong Kong in the 2000s, in relation to the transition of culture and art spaces in the Kwun Tong district where I had spent many years. This is because this district was an important place for autonomous culture and art in Hong Kong in the 2000s.



An art village born in an industrial building


I used to live in the Kwun Tong district for 10 years, which is located on the east side of the Kowloon Peninsula, and is a factory and warehouse district lined with more than 300 industrial buildings (Construction/industrial building) developed under large-scale city planning in the 1960s. The area was once a center of Hong Kong’s industry, transportation and commerce, but in the 1970s, as the manufacturing industry moved to mainland China, industry hollowed out and declined. Then in the ’90s, young artists, musicians, and cultural workers were attracted by cheap rent and large spaces. Since then, the Kwun Tong Industrial District has formed a unique urban community with a variety of spaces, including not only culture and arts, but also traditional candy factories, businesses such as wrestling gyms and indoor soccer stadiums, and collective housing for workers. These diverse and heterogeneous communities are called “Kwun Tong’s Industrial Art Village”



In 2013, I collaborated with Hong Kong music researcher Ansel Marc on an online/publishing project called “From the Factories”, which surveyed 35 art and cultural spaces scattered around the warehouse district, and conducted interviews with operators (the purpose, the rent, the area, what problems we face). Also, in the text “Rethinking Poverty and Art: A Decade in Kwun Tong’s Industrial Art Village” which describes the life in the building “Yeung 58” that I have lived in, I focus on the use of the space of the people who settled in the building, their lives, their labor, and the mutually beneficial relationships that they have engaged in. For example, a relationship between young musicians and an elderly woman who regularly came to the building to collect waste. For the woman, who regularly came to collect empty cans, the young musicians who live in the building gave her large cans of beer every time, the building guards kept watch on her carts, and the printing workers provided cardboard boxes. In these small daily exchanges, there was a network of mutual aid for the hard life in Hong Kong. Artists who moved to an industrial building and worked in shared studios were called “Factory Artists” and created a unique cultural system within the building.



Relationship between Creative Class and Gentrification in Hong Kong


It was during the 20 years from the 90s to 2010 that the industrial building had such an autonomous character. Basically, it is illegal to live in an industrial building in Hong Kong, and the activities there are also legally gray. In the first place, industrial buildings are legally defined as places for “Production” and are not residential spaces. However, since 1970, due to the relocation of industry, the landlords were happy to have tenants in any form, and tenants lived in secret by making a contract with the landlord and paying rent after building a relationship. However, if periodic inspections are conducted by the government, the landlord afraid of being penalized, may terminate the contract, and as a result, the tenants have to leave in two or three years. Unlike the squatters (illegal occupation) in North America and Europe, we pay rent but our situation is still illegitimate.


In this way, various cultural spaces were created in industrial buildings, but the government still made it illegal to use these buildings for purposes other than “Production”. In other words, arts and culture were not seen as associated with “Production” or economic activities. However, the relationship between the industrial buildings and arts and culture has changed significantly since 2010. In 2010, the Hong Kong government launched a redevelopment project called “Industrial Building Revitalization Measures” and in 2012, the Hong Kong Bureau of Cultural Development launched the “Boot Tokuryu (Energizing Kowloon East)”. What happened here was actually a large-scale redevelopment of Kwun Tong, as the residential areas, markets, and communities in the Dongguryong area were being wiped out in the name of “Revitalization of the local community”. I see this situation in the context of the post-industrial urban policy “Creative Class” (Richard Florida) of the 2010s. The large-scale redevelopment of Kwun Tong was positioned as the second project to create a special zone for urban redevelopment and economic revitalization in Hong Kong. By supporting cultural, artistic and other creative industries, it raised the real estate value of the entire district and attracted further investment. In line with this trend, various cultural projects and art events were planned under the leadership of the Hong Kong Cultural Development Bureau, as well as a mural painting project by graffiti artists. Under these circumstances, cultural workers who had been based in industrial buildings were forced to face rising rents, stricter regulations, and crackdowns caused by gentrification, and the sense of crisis redevelopment in Hong Kong, as well as political and economic issues, increased.



Hidden Agenda (2009 ~ 2017)


Hidden Agenda is a music venue that has emerged, developed, and disappeared as the redevelopment around this industrial building changed. The Hidden Agenda started in 2009 by experimental music lovers who lived in “Yeung 58”. At first, we brought music equipments into our shared room and used it as a music venue. Since then, the venue has been expanding with 3 moves, and after operating in 4 places, it closed in 2017. I was involved with the Hidden Agenda in Phase 2 (2012 ~ 2015), and my main role was dealing with the police. The Hong Kong police has a Police Citizens’ Affairs Section to control various activities of citizens. In Hong Kong, it is necessary to obtain a business license or a liquor sales license to operate a live house, but the Hidden Agenda continued to operate without application. The reason for this is that if the legal and facility standards required for business licenses were to be established, the rent and expenses would have been much heavier, and it would have been impossible to survive under the management policy of Hidden Agenda, which aimed at an experimental music scene that was not for commercial purposes.



The first eviction occurred due to the sale of a building, after moving to the next location, the government again forced us to move out due to a licensing issue. So, in 2012, we led a media campaign against excessive regulation, skyrocketing rents and their redevelopment project as a cause, and the government’s relentless eviction. In addition to demonstrations and petitions, we launched the “IRP (Independent revitalization partnership)” project, which seeks to reach out to the public through newspaper articles. The project was also a strong challenge to the term “Reactivation (Revitalization)”. The term reinvigoration was an excuse for speculative large-scale redevelopment as well as for the revitalization of areas that had already lost the vitality of communities and towns. There was already an independent cultural community in the industrial buildings in the district, and the majority of the residents felt that a top-down revitalization through government and corporate intervention was not necessary.


The demonstration carried out in the IRP project was the first action that brought together groups and individuals from Hong Kong who had previously worked in different areas, from art, music, and drama to civic movements, to collaborate on the common issue of “redevelopment”. This led to the connection between cultural expression and social movements in Hong Kong in the future, and was the beginning of a sustainable cooperative relationship. The demonstration, which was attended by about 500 people, featured a large number of artists marching to the Hong Kong Bureau of Arts and Culture, singing, playing drums and giving speeches as they headed toward the office buildings. When we arrived at the Hong Kong Department of Arts and Culture building, members of Hidden Agenda carried the Hidden Agenda door like a portable shrine and carried it to the entrance. The door was set up in front of the building of the bureau and a protest statement was made in front of it. (The reason for the door, Ahkok said, was that “This door should be taken care of responsibly by the Development Department until a new destination is found.”.) Interestingly, the door was entered to be displayed at the Hong Kong Pavilion of the Venetian Architecture Biennale in 2012. At that time, Hidden Agenda’s activities were included in the exhibition plan, which also promoted the redevelopment of the Dongguryong, and introduced the lives and communities of the residents of Donggulyong districts. With some of the funds raised, a documentary, we also produced “Hidden Agenda the Movie”. The second relocation site also faced problems with its entertainment licenses, and as a result of this media-mediated campaign, it became widely known to the public, but in the end became so famous that it was called Indy’s Tokyo Dome. In the end, we moved to a fourth place, but the scale increased, and as a result, they decided to close due to rent problems.


Although Hidden Agenda was a small music venue of about 200 people, its activities shed light on a variety of social and cultural issues, conflicts and contradictions in Hong Kong, including:.


1.Reinvigoration 2. Entertainment Permits 3. Fire Services Act 4. Migrant Workers 5. Noise Issues 6. Redevelopment 7. Bureaucracy 8. Spatial Justice (spatial justice) 9. Creative Class 10. Top-Down Cultural Policies 11. Alcohol Sales Permits 12. Copyright License 13. Legal/Illegal Drugs.


I now realize that this is the very important role that Hidden Agenda played in Hong Kong’s autonomous cultural scene.



Current situation in Hong Kong and the cultural scene in Hong Kong after Hidden Agenda


Finally, I called Hong Kong’s political and social situation as a “Red Light Situation”, a crosswalk signal that remains red. The Hong Kong administration no longer listened to the voices of its citizens, but noted that it was becoming an agent of mainland China’s orders, and that democracy in Hong Kong was dying. At the same time, however, I’d like to mention the cultural developments in Hong Kong under the title of “Cultural Practice under the authority” in which the cultural practices of Hong Kong in its authoritarian political system described changes in cultural practices such as resolutely defying the red light imposed on the government. While staying for a long time on a concert tour in April 2019, the music scene after Hidden Agenda in Hong Kong created about 10 new venues, all of which were illegal music venue without business licenses. In addition to performances, these spaces have multiple functions such as meetings, study sessions, screenings and exhibitions. Rather than being open, these spaces were semi-closed ones that could be visited by friends via word-of-mouth networks.


As for the characteristics of these new places, Ahkok mentioned the following:.


Instead of consolidating all activities in one central location, as in the case of Hidden Agenda, several different small spaces are scattered throughout the city and are organically connected to each other. Create decentralized cultural networks. In addition, increase the spaces where activities of multiple genres coexist.


DIY (DO IT YOURSELF) has given rise to DIO (DO IT WITH OTHERS), Doito (DO IT TOGETHER), a direction towards collaboration with different people. Although they are commercial-like (sound system company promotion), creating outdoor concerts and parties together has created a form of decentralized culture. The expansion of the cultural Habitats in Hong Kong has broadened the spectrum of people involved in the culture. Guerilla gigs, squats, etc. The important thing is not to be confined to a space, but to actively go out.


3.Independent to Underground
Citing the case of the Plastic Universe of the People in the Czech Republic, he points out that the tactics of a culture of resistance under authoritarian regimes have become common in Hong Kong. The process of moving from independent to underground. A shift from forming large groups and scenes to more decentralized, smaller population-based expressive activities. While ‘independent’ has been a question of the route and choice of access to cultural resources – what cultural resources to choose and how to distance themselves – the underground is primarily concerned with the issue of media representation in expression. Now that the Internet and SNS are no longer a free and fair space, what kind of media should be used/created, and what kind of expression should be created through these media? This is a tactic that comes out of the social media transition and the need to rethink how we use it. I’ve been using social networks for a long time to promote things, but are they really helping us?


4.Participant Agency 
The people who hang out in a place are not just customers, but rather people who are involved in a relationship creating a scene together. The forms of customer participation and engagement are becoming more proactive, active and diverse.



Comments (by Ken Egami)


Hidden Agenda have been an alternative space in which various problems and contradictions in Hong Kong emerged, as well as a being the grounds of conflict itself. ) that inevitably confront social, cultural, and economic contradictions in the space and the activities of its people. As Hong Kong becomes increasingly repressive after the activities of Hidden Agenda, Ahkok’s view of the current “red signal” situation in Hong Kong is not just pessimistic, but see a new potential for cultural activism.

通訳/文責:江上賢一郎(国際芸術創造研究科 博士課程)