A Tale of Two City-States

Chance had me travel directly from Singapore to Hong Kong. The two former British colonial ports have both transformed into wealthy city-states, hubs for shipping and finance, and consumer paradises. Both have corporatist governments backed by a property developers and business plutocrats. Both try to regulate every aspect of public life through security cameras, heavy sanctions, and hostile multi-lingual signage: Spitting or Discharge of Litter Is Strictly Punished. Do Not Stand Here- Keep Moving. Hawkers will be Prosecuted. In both cities drinking fountains are labeled with a long list of instructions, including the proper distance to position your mouth. But only one is a successful police state, the other failed.

Against all odds, Singapore, the sweltering multi-ethnic port city only a few degrees away from the the equator, is on lockdown. It is harmonious, safe, prosperous and famously boring. Here you have a working model of that "society of the spectacle" that radicals rail against. Not that it's a wasteland, we had a great gig there and met heaps of cool people, but they represent a tiny exception to the nearly omnipotent system.

Hong Kong, fortunately, seems to has some indigestion with control. You find plenty of dense and gritty districts, the kind of urban fabric we'd expect of a big port linking Asia to the rest of the world. Hong Kong is fortunate to have a music and art scene, but might be only a few wrong steps from being another Singapore.

In the midst of sparkling new glass skyscrapers I went to see Chinese opera in a traditional bamboo theater. Entry was free, the place was rammed with people of all ages. Amazing.... until you notice a booth proudly displaying an architectural model of the ultramodern cultural center that will soon replace it. You can be damn sure it won't have the spirit of this hand-made bamboo theater they're so keen to rip down.

I'm staying in a low-rent industrial district of Kwuen Tung. Musicians and artists have migrated here in their usual quest for cheap raw space. The government has a different plan to "energize" the neighborhood. I write these words in building literally trembling from the excavation of a hole where they will build a new condo tower across the street. The billboards around the construction crater attract buyers with terms like "dynamic community". Ironic, that's exactly what they are here to destroy. It's the same script I've seen everywhere from Brooklyn to Poble Nou, the difference here is geography. Hong Kong is just tiny city-state, get pushed to far to the periphery and you end up in mainland China.

Musicians throw guerrilla gigs in this barrio, the last of which occupied a bus factory slated for demolition. More regular gigs are held at Hidden Agenda, a venue here in the same few area, now in it's third location: through an unmarked garage door and up a freight elevator. The previous two incarnations were closed by the police. We perform there next weekend, February 24th.

A rich cultural scene develops naturally or not at all, you can't burn out artists then centrally plan an arts scene. It's like bulldozing the habitat of a rare bird, and then spend a fortune on an aviary to display a few curated specimens of the bird.