Since coming on the Hong Kong scene 16 years ago, King Ly Chee has been the dominant hardcore act in the city and one of the most influential bands of the region. Last year, they nearly gave it all up.
I meet with vocalist Riz at a small noodle shop outside the tube station near his house in Po Lam, in the New Territories area of Hong Kong. In this district few of the shops have English signage or menus. Riz, a Pakistani born in Hong Kong, orders for us in his native Cantonese. Cold chicken and rice, milk tea, and a lot of background noise make up a typical working lunch here, and for an hour we talk about hardcore music and politics, sexism and Neo-nazis, and the insane number of talented bands in Asia.
The first time I sawKing Ly Chee play was at hometown venue Hidden Agenda. Riz introduced the second song of the set with, "Let's keep it positive, motherfuckers!" The band's energy was incredibly intense, and extremely effective. Since I knew Riz first as an elementary school teacher, I wasn't sure what to expect; now that I've seen him onstage and in the classroom, I've realized that he's the exact same person on and offstage (give or take the profanity).
The other two guys are pretty "normal," too; one of the guitarists, Joe Wu, is a tattoo artist who splits his time between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, about three hours north. He's the quieter, more poetic guitarist in King Ly Chee. Drummer Ivan Wing is a drum teacher when he's home in Macau and is the only person in the band who earns his living solely from music. He has a YouTube channel where he posts drum covers, and that's how he got into the band.
King Ly Chee has toured China, South East Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia, and the United States. They've played with NoFX and Sick Of It All and with countless amazing Asian bands. When I ask them which experience stands out the most, Joe immediately brings up a show they played in a small town not far from the North Korean-Chinese border.
Touring in China is tricky. Venues can be up to a thousand kilometers apart—if not a lot further than that. Everybody in the band works a full-time job, so there's not much time for long trips. When King Ly Chee plays a ten-stop tour, they do it in ten days, and generally cover more than ten thousand kilometers. Even when young bands are starting out here, they have to take trains or fly when playing in the next city over, so they travel light: guitarists carry pedals and a guitar; drummers carry a snare, sticks, and symbols. Venues are responsible for having everything else the bands need: amps, cabinets, mics, and full drum kits. That's why, Joe says, he never got too caught up in his "sound."
So when they hit a closet of a venue in Shenyang, all they had to play through were some small combo amps. "It didn't matter," Joe told me, "You hit the first chord. and everyone goes nuts!" "Intimate" is too generous an adjective for some of the venues they've played, and there's often nothing separating the band from the crowd. Of course, this lack of a barrier often makes for incredibly raw shows.
For Riz, the best was the show they played at the Midi Festival in Suzhou. He's visibly excited as he tells me, "We were just doing sound check, testing to see if the amps worked and they were already moshing and yelling! It was like a sea of people… I just looked back at the guys and was like, I think they know who we are!"
It's been a long strange ride for Riz and King Ly Chee. He saw Sick of It All play a show 22 years ago at Pearl Street in Northampton, MA. That's the night Riz was inspired to take hardcore back to Hong Kong. He realized what he needed back home.
Hong Kong is a city that prides itself in civility: people queue for the bus, control their emotions, don't use profanity, and do use sunscreen. There's passion in the city, but it's expected that everyone keep it locked up tight: Hong Kongers don't lose control of themselves. Riz speculates this is why hardcore hasn't really taken off. It's a culture where saving face is so important, "you don't get angry or call out anyone's bullshit to their face," he says. You have to carry that home. Riz, however, isn't likely to hold back. To his close friends, he's the realest motherfucker in Hong Kong.
In China, however, it's not that way. "They just wanna go crazy", Riz says, reliving that day. "When we got on stage man… it was awesome! It felt like two thousand people holding us up, and not on a pedestal, just like, 'We know that you've existed for sixteen years, that you've gone through hell. We know that you're Pakistani but you sing in Cantonese and Mandarin, for us. And we love you for doing that.'"
You can find the live video of that show online, and see those fans waving massive banners and people running through the circle pit with lit road flares. "And that's a very mainland China music festival kind of thing," Riz explains, "but it felt like it was for us. We were the band they came to see. When that show ended it was like, dude, let's go, let's end the band."
"I've lived my life, I'm happy." Riz says coming back down to that noodle shop in Hong Kong. "We came back from that tour, we just toured with Sick Of It All and we had just played that incredible show; what else is there? Literally what else is there?" After the tour, Riz didn't touch King Ly Chee for months.
Not long after, though, Sick Of It All invited the band to come to the states and play a few shows with them on their 30th anniversary tour. "If they had not said that, we would have been like, literally the band is over, it would've been done.," Riz tells me.
Their East Coast tour last summer lifted the band even further. For Ivan, "Touring in the US is what I've dreamed about ever since I started playing in bands, and to be sincere, it still feels like I'm dreaming." His most memorable show was the Sick Of It All show in Webster Hall, which he describes as a dream come true. King Ly Chee were amazed at how dedicated to the hardcore scene their American fans seemed to be. To Ivan, it feels like the people at the US shows "breathe, eat, and drink the music…. which doesn't happen too much in Hong Kong or Macau. We have a shorter history in music compared to the US, but we hope one day it will get better!"
Recent changes in Hong Kong have also had an effect that King Ly Chee can't ignore, with current economic and political movements are generating a lot of material for Riz right now. What started with the Umbrella Movement has led to more, sometimes violent unrest, while the political relationship between China and Hong Kong is changing drastically—and not in favor of the people. There's a growing sense of frustration, and a kind of insidious dread. "It's easier than I thought it would be to write now, we've got a lot to say," Riz explains. "Hardcore is great like that; if you've got something to say, get some chords and a mic."
Given the relevance of hardcore now, we worked back around to the question of ending the band. Admittedly, they were a little less ready for that. "What happened in the States has definitely re-energized us. Just playing those shows on the East Coast I was connecting to people like I've always wanted to be," says Riz. "Right now, our plan is to get back there every summer. Trudge it out, do our thing in Hong Kong, and then to get back there and tour."
Maybe he's still coming down from that Suzhou high , or maybe they are about to break into a whole new level. But the members of the band that spoke with me all commented that things are weird in many regions in Asia, and the youth are definitely tuned into it. It's probably going to cause a bit of shift in the music in the region for a lot of bands the next couple years. As for King Ly Chee, they'll keep doing what they do. This year, if they get their way, they're planning to put out a new EP, and to return to the States for another tour, to carry on spreading the message of Hong Kong hardcore into a whole new hemisphere.