Most festivals in the United Kingdom take place in a fairly non-descript field. The farmer kicks the cows out by the truck-load, and in come thousands of pilled up revelers, stamping their Huarache-shaped mark on the countryside. So it’s a given, really, that festivals halfway across the world take place in far more gob-smacking settings. Take, for example, Hong Kong’s Clockenflap Festival. Over on the harbour-facing West Kowloon island, It’s the sort of place where you can watch New Order inflate the neon love balloon of ‘True Faith’ while, just across the water, the dancing electric tinsel of the Honkers skyline is stacked before you in all its pixel-perfect glory. New York has plenty-good real estate, but only Hong Kong is that densely packed that it turns into building Tetris. Here, the soft immersive wash of Blur’s The Magic Whip was born, and witnessing the place, it chimes quite perfectly. Just look at those skyscrapers above. Aren't they a beacon for the future of festivals in the East?
The thing is, though, whatever the delights of the backdrop, at street level, Hong Kong has never been interested in the rock festival as a thing. Bar a small expat scene, the culture of gig-going just isn’t established, much less of festival-going. So much so that when Clockenflap organizer Justin Sweeting first started, he had to put introductory section on his website for locals, like: ‘What is a festival?’ and ‘How should one behave at a festival?’. All the important questions for newbies to the scene.
Seven years on, he’s had The Libertines, A$AP Rocky and Angel Haze through his doors this year, but he says he has yet to break even, and convincing the authorities to let him do his business in the liberal-illiberal greylands of the post-handover island has been all uphill. I talked to Justin about what Clockenflap can tell us about what a festival is, and more importantly, what Hong Kong is.
Noisey: Hi Justin. Could you start by explaining to me why a festival in Hong Kong is such an obscure concept?
Justin: In Hong Kong we don’t have a history of this sort of culture. It’s a wonderful city but it just doesn’t have a lot going on creatively. Being outdoors, in the middle of the day, sitting on the grass, watching an act you may not know – out here these are paradigm shifts, relatively speaking.
Why do you think that is?
For a long time, people in Hong Kong haven’t had a lot to complain about. Life’s been okay. In that kind of situation, it hasn’t really been possible to have sincere punk music or creative movements – we haven’t had much to rebel against. Of course, that’s changed in recent times. We’ve got something to be angry about, and it’s certainly healthy for the creative arts.
Is there a culture of live music at least? What’s a local gig like?
Historically, what people came to expect of live music was very different from the West. Here, it was background music to dinner. It was mainly cover bands. In terms of ticketing, we had to convince people to understand what coming to a show is. Even outside the festival, we had to encourage people to come to shows that weren’t on the weekend.
But it’s a famously commercially-liberal place, so I’m assuming it’s relatively easy to set yourself up.
Not really. We’ve definitely had to roll with the punches, in terms of working with the authorities. We had to make Clockenflap free one year. In order to use that stunning bit of land we now have, we also had to make baby-steps with the authorities to play by the rules. The first year we got hold of that bit of land, they told us: by the way, you’re not going to be able to sell any tickets.
What did you end up doing?
We had to make a decision: do we kill this now, or do we lower the bar as far as possible to get people into the festival so that they see what a festival actually is, and hopefully they’ll come back? Effectively we put on Hong Kong’s biggest ever free party.
You say you don’t get any support from the government – has that changed much since the handover? Is the new regime turning the screws, culturally?
I think one of the major issues is that there’s nowhere for things to ultimately escalate to. There’s no minister of culture. There’s not someone at policy level whose job it is to nurture and ensure the infrastructure’s in place.
So does the lack of festivals mean that Hong Kong might be a very commercial culture but it’s not necessarily an entrepreneurial one?
No, I think it is very entrepreneurial, because if you look at it with pure business eyes, there’s no reason to do a festival – we’ve haven’t broken even in seven years. In Chinese eyes, if it doesn’t make money, you stop doing it.
Are there any big festivals on the Chinese mainland?
There’s lots. In the hundreds, actually. But there aren’t many that are well-run or respected. It’s really hard doing a festival on the mainland.
From the organiser’s side, all the cards are stacked against you. The ministry of culture say that you have to submit all the lyrics, all the setlists for approval. You have to be very careful about anything that has any involvement about Tibet. I know a lot of festival organisers, who, sometimes they just get a fax a couple of days before the event – "Your event is cancelled." That’s the end. No arguments. It’s very tough when the rules can change in an instant.
Why did you start Clockenflap?
I was born and raised here, went to the UK for university, stayed on there to play in a band for a while. I was in a touring act called Six Ray Sun [they once supported The Cribs]. We had an indie deal. It got to the level where we’d tour the toilet circuit around the country. But after that plateaued, I came back, looked around me and I saw nothing had changed – the scene was still flatlining in Hong Kong. I was so burnt out on music in the UK, but here it was still innocent and pure. There was no expectation.
I guess though, there was also a sense of: “Well if it was going to happen, someone would have already done it by now.”
Absolutely. And there were plenty of efforts. People had tried to make things happen. People had dipped their toes. Even now, plenty try but fail. If I walked downstairs, and announced: “We just worked on a festival”, 99% of people would think I was talking about a religious festival.
Who is going, then? Are your attendees just curious? Are they people with links to the West?
There’s a large expat market, but this is the first year the majority of the festival-goers have been local Chinese. The thing with expats is that gig-going is sewn into their culture. For them, our marketing is like: “Look these are the dates, this is what’s happening.” They know the drill. But to be really successful long-term, we have to tap into the local market.
Are the ones you get still very UK-centric? The old G ’n T public school crew of lore?
I don’t think so. Whereas in past times, a lot of British and American expats would make up the majority, now it’s a lot of French. There’s a swing in that sense. The French are very supportive of the arts – you see that having an effect.
But do they still lord it?
In terms of a lot of expats coming here and having a very well-paid job, now, in most cases, they’re not on big expat deals that make them much better-paid than the locals. They’re here more and more because they genuinely want to be here. Those days are gone, I’m afraid.
That’s very sad.
In one way.