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Friday, May 10, 2019, 17:40
Where have all the buskers gone?
By Neil Li
Friday, May 10, 2019, 17:40 By Neil Li

As the space for street performances keeps shrinking in Hong Kong, Neil Li speaks to a couple of diehards still trying to soldier on against the odds.

Andrew So aka Mr Funny has been entertaining the crowds on Hong Kong’s streets since 2005. (EDMOND TANG / CHINA DAILY)

2018 was a challenging year for the buskers and street performers of Hong Kong. The closure of Sai Yeung Choi Street South pedestrian zone in Mong Kok in August came as a blow to many of the city’s street performers. Two months later, unapproved busking was temporarily banned at the piazza and open walkways of Times Square in Causeway Bay where buskers performed on weekend evenings. 

Out of the zone 

Sai Yeung Choi Street South was pedestrianized in 2000 in a bid to draw more people to the 500-meter-long shopping area. However, as street performances caught on, neighborhood residents complained about noise and light pollution. The street’s opening hours were reduced several times between 2010 and 2013 until in 2018 it was opened to vehicular traffic at all times. 

The complaint about rising decibel levels was valid. Soon after Sai Yeung Choi Street South was pedestrianized in 2000, it was taken over by a mixed bag of performers with variable standards. Barring a handful of talented entertainers, most others were essentially amateur karaoke singers armed with large amplifiers. Often it was more about shouting down the next person than singing. 

Andrew So, who began busking in 2005, says while the first lot of performers believed in giving each other space, as more entertainers arrived on the scene there simply wasn’t enough room left to accommodate everyone. Eventually So decided to leave. 

Andrew So aka Mr Funny has been entertaining the crowds on Hong Kong’s streets since 2005. (EDMOND TANG / CHINA DAILY)

“I couldn’t perform there anymore because people would reserve spots in advance and provide seating. Buskers don’t pass out chairs for the audience to sit on. It basically became an outdoor nightclub rather than a busking zone,” says So, a juggling and mime artist with the stage name Mr Funny who now performs in Tsim Sha Tsui, Tsuen Wan and Sai Kung. 

When he started 14 years ago, many people didn’t appreciate street performers. “No matter where we performed, be it the police, government officials or shop owners — they would try to kick us out. They simply saw us as a nuisance,” So says.

He was arrested twice. In 2010, he was charged with obstructing traffic in a public place during a juggling performance. However, the judge cited Hong Kong’s Basic Law — which protects the rights and freedom of Hong Kong residents to engage in artistic creations and other cultural activities in a public place — and ruled in his favor. 

He still has occasional run-ins with police officers. Some try to assess the veracity of the complaints they receive. So believes many of them could do with a more sympathetic understanding of a street performer’s vocation. 

Robbie Ho and Mandy Chung curated the busking programs of Along the Edge Arts Festival. (EDMOND TANG / CHINA DAILY)

Regulation blues

So was recently invited onto a panel to debate busking-related regulations at the Along the Edge Arts Festival, an event aimed at turning the spotlight on the folk art forms and artists under the shadow of gradual extinction.

One of the curators of the festival’s busking program, Robbie Ho, is collecting data on how audiences experience busking. He hopes to learn in a statistically significant way if busking really affects the relationship between an audience and their environment. 

“Discussions of if busking should be regulated or if we should support busking in Hong Kong all rest on the assumption that busking can enhance the audience’s experience or make them happier in an environment. However, this is just an ideology. If it’s not supported by actual evidence, there’s a chance that further down the line the argument for it can easily collapse,” says Ho. 

While some buskers are in favor of letting only licensed buskers perform, they are skeptical about the qualifications of the likely license-issuing authority. Busking comes under street management, which involves nine government departments. Buskers would like details regarding the licensing criteria, the rights of a licensed busker and the yardsticks by which a performer’s craft will be judged clearly spelt out. 

Currently, West Kowloon Cultural District and Sha Tin Town Hall support outdoor performances, but they are not popular with buskers as the locations are far from downtown Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Police Department issues one-time-use permits for playing musical instruments on a public street. Understandably, this too has limited appeal for performers. 

In 2015, the Renaissance Foundation published a policy recommendations paper based on a close study of the busking policies in other countries. The suggestions included allotting performance spots on a first-come, first-served basis, limiting performances to two hours and setting a 50-meter distance between performers. 

“These policy recommendations would have addressed some of the problems that led to the closure of the pedestrian zone in Mong Kok,” Ho says, regretting that many of these were never taken into account.

Jay Lee and his City Echo group intend to promote busking culture in Hong Kong despite facing legal action. (EDMOND TANG / CHINA DAILY)

Carry on till tomorrow

To make things easier for Hong Kong’s buskers, Ho says it is crucial that everyone concerned — buskers, audiences and officials — develop a better understanding of busking and public spaces. 

For instance, not everyone may be aware that private developments in Hong Kong under deeds of dedication with the government are required to provide open spaces for public use. For instance, Times Square had committed 32,482 square feet of open space for “pedestrian passage and passive recreation” but now contends that busking and street performances do not qualify.

Jay Lee and his City Echo busking collective had been performing at the piazza on weekends for years until the shopping center took legal action in September last year. “They did give us warning letters before, but we thought they just wanted us to follow the rules. We’ve always complied when the police asked us to lower the volume or make room for foot traffic,” Lee says.

“We also didn’t know who they were targeting because some performers moved to the piazza from Mong Kok after the pedestrian zone there closed,” he adds. 

Lee founded City Echo in June 2016 to promote a wide variety of Hong Kong music and has organized almost 200 performances. After the ban, the collective continued to perform at other locations, trying to rebuild their community of performers and listeners. But Lee says the lawsuit has tarnished their image. Now when they try performing at alternative locations, “some people complain that since we’re being sued by Times Square, what we’re doing must be bad.” 

If the judge rules against them, there will be fewer locations where buskers can perform. Many Hong Kong buskers have begun to feel it’s not worth the risk anymore. 

While Lee welcomes regulations for busking activities, he understands it might take years to happen. Still, he isn’t ready to give up just yet. “I’ll just keep doing it for as long as I can. There will always be new local performers to promote and more people who will accept and support busking,” he says.

So is more cynical. He doesn’t believe the government is interested in developing the local busking culture but, like Lee, So hopes to continue busking for as long as he can. 

“I think the people of Hong Kong have the need for something like this because living here can be quite restricted and stressful. Buskers can bring some joy and fun to the city, help people relax and let them experience local grassroots culture,” So says.

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