Within the first three weeks of studying abroad in Hong Kong, I spent more time in clubs than in class. Beer was cheap, school was easy, and making reckless friends was even easier. Unfortunately and inevitably, the nightlife thrill slowly faded into a dull routine accompanied by hungover marketing classes and surprise bills from Wan Chai's strip joints. The lavish clubs that sit high above the sticky, blackened streets of Lan Kwai Fong became as charming as the shitty bars that pack door-to-door below. Desperately seeking an escape from bottle service sparklers and Akon remixes, I began sifting through blogs, forums, and less-than-helpful Reddit content. Eventually, I stumbled across a post that dropped me into Hong Kong's pop-up party scene.
The pop-up concept—whether it's retailers, small restaurants, cinemas, or even museums—is nothing new. Within the past few years, it has begun to show its face in the form of underground electronic music events around Hong Kong. Of course, big Western cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit have had a long, influential history of warehouse raves and similar activities. A few weeks later, prompted by the urge to see Hong Kong's underground scene for myself, I was swallowed whole by the weird and wacky world of Paranoid Park.
Paranoid Park is a nightlife event put together by a small Hong Kong-based organization called Totoro Typhoon. A quick Google search doesn't bring up much. They don't have a website or a Twitter account and with just under 500 likes, their Facebook page simply describes them as a "creative dealer." Each of their pop-up events takes place at a secret location that's revealed the day of the event, sometimes only a few hours beforehand. Totoro Typhoon started throwing these public events last summer and each one has attracted larger and larger crowds. Their latest pop-up was big enough that the Hong Kong Police Force shut it down.
This is how the night unfolded.
Directions to the secret location were unveiled on the Facebook event page in the afternoon. It included a broken Google Maps link and a couple of pictures like the one above. In other words, I had no fucking idea where I was supposed to go. It took me a metro ride to Northern Kowloon and two pissed off taxi drivers until the group I was with happened to meet some expats trying to get to the same place. After some troubleshooting, we finally arrived at the trailhead that would take us to our final destination. With no lighting whatsoever, only a rusted handrail and the occasional hanging glow stick provided guidance as we began a trek up hundreds of cement stairs.
As we climbed higher up this godforsaken, fauna strangled mountain we reached a second gate that had been thrown open. An open lock hung lazily on the chain-link. I started wondering how illegal this operation really was and if my life (and my visa) was at risk. A waft of burnt weed hit my nostrils as we continued our ascent and the promising throb of distant bass grew increasingly prevalent in the humid air. Our Tsingtao beers were piss warm by the time we finally reached the top.
We found ourselves on a plateau that was clearly a public park during the day, but the landscape had been completely transformed. Projectors and black lights layered the trees and surrounding crowd with glowing patterns creating a heavy ambiance. The majority of people clustered around a flimsy DJ booth and generator-powered sound setup. Others preferred to scatter around, sitting on the ground amidst glowing paper lanterns and passing around bottles of cheap sake. Face-painted representatives from Dynasti, a local clothing brand, only exacerbated the eccentric atmosphere with ultra-contemporary getups that looked like freakish ritual garments.
Miss Yellow, a Hong Kong-based DJ, was the center of attention all night, gracing us with wobbly basslines and gritty tech house. She had no trouble dragging everyone into a fuzzy, percussion-laced dream state. Just after midnight, not long after the music had settled into a steady purr, it was suddenly muted. An organizer cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted that there had been noise complaints and that they would shut down in half an hour.
The music did resume, but it was cut off again 15 minutes later when police showed up. At this point, there were throngs of people. Cops started sweeping the field to clear people out and by 1:30 AM most were gone. Nobody was happy about it. "The speakers were shit and it got shut down as soon as I turnt up. The concept of the party seemed good, but it just turned out disappointing," laments one of the attendees.
The next day, this had become quite the news story. Hong Kong media was quick to shame the event as rebellious and foolhardy. Two hundred people had showed up and made more of a clamor than neighbouring residents were willing to put up with. No one was arrested, but the personal information of organizers was taken down.
It's unfortunate but not at all surprising. Totoro Typhoon is still relatively new to the pop-up game, and this was their first attempt at an all-night affair.
"That was my first time playing at a pop-up party," says Miss Yellow a few days after the event. "I like the concept very much, from the location to the crowd. It gives us something fresh and different. I'll play more if there's a chance in the future because I can play the stuff I truly like."
In a city populated with over seven million people, finding isolation isn't easy. "It's challenging for the organizers," she continues. "They need to find somewhere to avoid the people who would complain." She speculates that it was people living on the upper floors of nearby buildings who phoned the fuzz during Paranoid Park. "The organizers didn't expect that, because that park is really far from the buildings...people have to walk up the hill to get there. They also found out afterward that the park actually belongs to the government and we weren't supposed to enter. Welcome to Hong Kong."
Nevertheless, Miss Yellow is optimistic about the future of pop-ups. "[They're] having a positive impact on the scene," she says. "Some pop-up parties are scaling bigger year by year. Many underground acts from different music genres, they all come to Hong Kong to perform. Even warehouse parties are happening more and more, I think it's a sign."
Totoro Typhoon is fronted by two business partners, both of whom wish to remain anonymous in this article. The brainchild of the group is actually a Parisian who works as a director for a video production company in Hong Kong. For our purposes we'll call him Francis*.
The pop-ups are just a fun side project for Francis and he claims that the vast majority are not for profit. "The sound spread out very quickly," he says about the cops that night. "I thought it would be alright, but not at all." He laughs. "If it's a free event, it's hard to control the amount of people. We created another group as well. It's private this time. We only choose the people we want. So it's more of a techno party but with only around a hundred people in a closed area."
Francis first developed an ear for electronic music at massive factory parties in Paris. He later moved to Sydney and lived with two roommates who dabbled in DJing. Through them, he says he attended some of the best parties of his life. "They reopened my ears," he says. "I arrived in Hong Kong a bit more than a year ago. I was doing a lot of these factory parties in and around Paris and I arrived here. After a couple of months I gave up and said 'okay there's no good parties I want, so let's make my own.'"
According to Francis, pop-up parties were huge in Hong Kong around 20 years ago. Authorities have since cracked down on them, almost completely killing the market. For years, it was guaranteed that cops would show up in an attempt to keep things clean and controlled. Now, Hong Kong is seeing a pop-up revival.
For the past year, it's been almost too easy to buy drugs in Lan Kwai Fong, which is an unusual reputation for the area. Regardless, drugs are Satan in Hong Kong and the problem has very recently been all but eliminated. Francis thinks the control on drugs has had an effect on how big electronic music can be in the city. "I don't think electronic music can really live without a little bit of drugs, which is sad," he tells THUMP. "Hong Kong is not super dynamic in terms of production. We are opening their ears, but it's taking time."
Paranoid Park fascinated me, but I knew I had only scratched the surface. It didn't take me long to scout out another organization that is something of a legend in Hong Kong. It's widely regarded as the crème de la crème of Hong Kong pop-ups, and for good reason. It blew everything else out of the water.
To be continued...
Parker Buckley is on SoundCloud.