By Hans Ebert


Hong Kong must have the most number of fortysomething “indie” bands per capita in the world, each one thinking they’re taking the bull by the horns, and either being part of the changing face of music, or even changing the face of music altogether. Sorry, but at least those that are audible, have an old face, and are still regurgitating pallid versions of tracks even Blink-182, Sum 41, and Limp Bizkit would have been embarrassed to release.

But these bands, usually made up of sons- and a few daughters- of old-time Hong Kong musicians, are simply carrying on a family tradition by trying to make their mark in music, but with nothing new added to the mix. But how could there be anything new when Hong Kong is not exactly Electric Ladyland, and there’s such little exposure to new Western music other than the occasional music festival and hidden agenda gigs that seldom surface? And for how much longer are these bands living in the past with their weekend tatts going to keep recording music that goes only nowhere?


Though now in their Forties, meeting them, and listening to what they’re doing with their music, there’s a sad sense of déjà-vu. It’s like standing and talking to their folks- but when their folks were in their late teens or early twenties. They’re awkward, shy, not street smart, and like their folks, who never ever listened to bands like Led Zeppelin, Vanilla Fudge or Moby Grape as their appreciation of popular Western music ended with the Searchers, the Hollies and Herman’s Hermits, are extremely old fashioned in their thinking. They just don’t know it. But who’s guiding them? They’re influenced by their musician parents, who probably didn’t even watch the documentary on “Woodstock”. That new band at the rock festival called Santana would have scared the shit outta them. Hong Kong only really accepted Santana when they came out with “Smooth”. Hong Kong only understood “Stairway To Heaven” almost a decade after it was originally released. Does Hong Kong know any other Led Zeppelin track? Doubt it.

Many of the parents of these fortysomething local “Indies” went from playing the hits of British Beat Boom groups to suddenly embracing MOR artists like David Foster, Al Jarreau and George Benson. If a kid living with musical parents like these, the odds are that you would have always been behind the eight ball when it came to everything- including getting laid, inhaling, and hearing music that was relevant at the time.

The reason for much of this has to be squarely blamed on those running and controlling the local music industry at the time- the heads of radio stations, who decided for audiences what they should hear, including stopping the playing of Western music for quite a while. This was when they worked in cahoots with music companies hell-bent on pushing their roster of Chinese artists recording in Cantonese. There was so much easy money to be made in what this writer dubbed Canto-Pop for the trade publication Billboard, that everyone controlling every aspect of music in Hong Kong followed this money trail and became the fat cats that they are today. Burp.


English music in Hong Kong, especially Rock music, had no chance whatsoever to even hit an opening power chord. It would be fair to say that Hong Kong lost at least a decade of Western music- except for the MOR schmaltz that was “allowed” to be played on-air- and imported by the music companies- that playing catch-up has become Mission: Impossible. And the ubiquitous nostalgia concerts by international oldsters rolling into town with monotonous regularity, along with one more “Farewell” concert by former local popsters now in their Seventies, doesn’t help. Not to say that nostalgia doesn’t have a place in our lives, or that it shouldn’t be milked for all it’s worth as obviously there’s an audience for these acts out there. But it just creates an incredibly boring music scene and gives younger musicians the impression that for them to get anywhere, they need to be copies of everything that’s come before.


Is it any wonder that when one tries to create something original and refers to bands and musicians like Beck, Weeknd and Gorillaz, and even going back to The Clash, you’re met with a vacant stare. Bon Jovi, they know. Maybe Van Halen, and definitely the Eagles. But when it comes to Jeff Buckley, even Prince and Bowie, or what happened to Viola Beach, it’s like talking to Tommy, you know, that deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure played a mean pinball.


Not to sound cruel, but you often wonder if these are real musicians or well-to-do fortysomethings dabbling in music knowing they’ll never go hungry, and absolutely clueless as to how old-fashioned they are in how they approach music compared to, for example, the new wave of artists and bands in Singapore, Taiwan and Beijing.

Add to this list the truly original new bands in the Philippines. They make a mockery of the copycat musicians from that country living in Hong Kong and eking out a living either going from gig playing anything and everything that’s not original, or else doing it tough as a covers band in a bar where the women and the drinks are the priority. It’s a thankless job, and someone’s gotta do it, but this takes the art and process of creating music nowhere.

Music in this town has never been a priority. Canto-pop happened, and was something fresh and very much part of Hong Kong through the music of Sam Hui. It was creatively Made In Hong Kong music. That was probably Hong Kong’s finest hour when it came to creativity.

Sam Hui’s commercial Canto Pop continued until this quirky combination of colloquial Cantonese lyrics sung against a Western pop backing going back to Hui’s days performing hits in English with his band The Lotus, eventually made way for plodding Canto-ballads that all pretty much sounded the same to where we are today- an exercise in access where false “idols” are created and pimped out to an audience who buy into their image- the hairstyles, the numerous costume changes at their tedious concerts, the mawkish ballads, and a relentless army of public relations and marketing people ensuring that the endorsement deals money train continues. The music? It didn’t matter as long as it isn’t anything too difficult to accept. And this is the problem. It’s a problem that goes all the way back to the Sixties when there was some semblance of a fledgling local pop music scene.

Just as quickly as it happened, it was derailed by those calling the shots who got behind a few Chinese artists and Canto Pop and shut the door on the others including a tremendously talented local Eurasian musical talent- drummer-songwriter-singer-multi instrumentalist and teacher named Donald Ashley,who is very sadly no longer with us.

Donald railed against the system continuously. He took on the Filipino musicians for undercutting the fees for performing at gigs, and waged a lonely war to create a better and more creative musical environment for Hong Kong. For his troubles, he was ostracised. He was too much trouble for the fat cats and his bitterness stayed with him to the end. A real pity. Hong Kong needed and needs many Donald Ashleys. He had balls- balls as big as his talent.

Over the years, new music companies and new artist management and concert promotions companies might have opened up, but each of these are based on tired old business models and run by many with even older thinking: How to make the most money as quickly as possible by never upsetting the apple cart. Simply give them- audiences- more of what has always sold and don’t move away from this formula.


As a number of music executives in Hong Kong have pounded into me recently, what sells here is K-Pop and K-Pop-influenced artists younger that 23 who can sing, dance, and act. Find an act like this and it’s big money. Big money.


In any industry in Hong Kong, it’s all about making big money- and more big money- fast. It’s in the city’s DNA, and why there’s the appearance of much going on, but dig deeper, and what you find are shell companies backed by well-known money laundering outfits operating in Macau.


On the flip side of the coin are the wannabe “lo bans” with various tricks up their sleeves, each offering empty promises and always looking for that free lunch and new name card to add to their roller deck. A good roller deck is priceless in Hong Kong. Yes, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know- and how this could be used.


Creating original English music in Hong Kong? If not as a vanity product, forget it. The other problem is with who are you going to create this music? Some guys who need charts to be original? And even if you find that perfect musical storm, you’d better have access to the the Big Enchilada across the big waters who might buy into what you’re selling, Pocahontas.


Right now, if truth be known, some of the biggest names in music are going nowhere. Why? Because where’s there for music to go these days? It’s not only lost its heart along the way, it’s become discardable, and where very few are left standing.

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The one good thing about this situation is that the world doesn’t need anymore filler fodder. It’s waiting for someone and something outstanding to come along. And if a creative in any field, that’s what you strive for. That’s what keeps you motivated. That’s the challenge. And when you produce that piece of brilliance, that’s when you can give everyone the two finger salute, especially the wombats in Hong Kong who tried to make you what you’re not.

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