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[Outbound]: Hong Kong Underground

A random wander down some of Hong Kong's underground music and art backroads. An alternative HK visa trip fueled by coffee waves...
Last updated: 2015-11-09
Visa trip time again. I've sworn off Erlian (after going there like 50 times) and I really swung for the fences with my brief Seoul outing a few months back, so for this visa clock reset I did what most Beijing-based expats who aren't middle-class-poor do: the Hong Kong visa run. Note: this isn't an actual visa re-up (learn about that process here), just a quick in-and-out to refresh your x-day stay in the Mainland.

For this trip I solicited some advice from the peanut gallery, trying to find the weirdest shit to get into in my approximately 48 hours in HK. A lot of people said Chungking Mansions, and yeah, on the surface, that's a strange scene for sure. Last time I was in Hong Kong, my band at the time was supposed to stay there, but we got in at like 3am and they'd already rented our rooms out to some Indian guys that then tried to sell us hashish. That's kind of the standard Chungking experience, though, and it's not all that weird when you really think about it. Simple backpacker economics, really. So I skipped that this time around. And my buddy Matjaž already found the triad KTV, so that was out, too.

In the end, I defaulted to what I know: fringe music and art bullshit. Here's some off-beat Hong Kong stuff to get into if you're trying to step a bit out of the expected dim sum / mall racket. Hint: you'll mostly be sticking to Kowloon. And you will still hit many malls.

My first point of contact and host in Hong Kong is Christiaan Virant (above left), one half of electronic music duo FM3 and co-inventor of the Buddha Machine. Christiaan's a bit of a globetrotter — Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley once labeled him a "drone nomad" — but he's called Hong Kong home more than any other place besides Beijing over his 25+ years in the Asia expat game, so for my intents and purposes he's a head. First order of business is to pick up some fresh Buddha Machine t-shirts and sticker bomb a few public spots with promo for FM3's forthcoming album, Ting Shuo (that'll drop in Beijing next month... stay tuned to SmBJ for more on that in the next week or so).

Next order of business is to drink lots of coffee. While it's no Seoul or Tokyo, Hong Kong has a much more advanced coffee culture than Beijing. There are a handful of recent upstarts specializing in something called third wave coffee, which I couldn't explain to you beyond stating that it tastes great and makes me feel better about not having slept at all before my (delayed — avoid China Southern) flight from Beijing. Most of these upscale coffee spots are in malls, because Hong Kong is essentially a neverending chain of interlocking, labyrinthine malls. It's just a thing there.

After juicing up and powering down for a 30-minute, early evening nap, it's off to the HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity to meet Dennis Wong. Dennis is one of these guys I've been in touch with over the years because we have the same questionable taste in "music," but have never actually met in person. He does improvised experimental / noise music under the name Sin:Ned (check out his latest work, Organs Without Body, here) and is one of Hong Kong's main curators for these kinds of sounds. His longest-running event series is Noise to Signal, but tonight is the second version of a newer, more sitting-and-chin-stroking-oriented series called Subliminal Lounge. This Swiss experimental bass clarinet + electronics trio called DEER provides the live soundtrack to a hyper-surreal 1937 Belgian film. Indeed. A decent crowd of young Hong Kong experimental arts enthusiasts turn up to imbibe the esoteric cultural wavelengths. Nice scene.

This one wraps early, as you might imagine. So we get on the MTR to hop "across the river" into Central on Hong Kong Island, aka ground zero of HK Saturday night banker vibes. It's a contrast.

For dinner we hit Tsui Wah, a very Hong Kong cha canting chain that will provide most of my non-coffee meals on this trip. Tsui Wah has a sprawling menu of noodle and rice dishes that all seem to have some kind of hybrid angle to them. I get this pan-Southeast-Asian-HK hybrid curry egg thing, and it's pretty damn good. But the main jam at Tsui Wah, for me, is yet another coffee. Actually it's a milk tea / Vietnamese coffee hybrid, iced because it's fucking hot in Hong Kong still. If you're feeling something a bit less caffeinated, they also serve up an "Almond Tea w/ Egg White," which I guess won't make you sick.

(Shanghai has a bunch, obviously, if you wanna pop in for a taste.)

Next we stroll a bit deeper into Soho to take a look at Bibo, this upscale, street-art-themed (ha, HK) French restaurant and bar. The official company line is that Bibo is some mysterious, anonymous artist who wanted to create a "place where contemporary and street art converge from all corners of the world and where freedom of the senses is encouraged" — for Goldman Sachs types, I guess. Rumor is that "Bibo" is actually big deal French graffiti dude Invader. Whoever "Bibo" is, he's a rich motherfucker. The decor is all work by art-world-sanctioned street artists: original Basquiats, Shepherd Faireys, KAWS'es, Banksies, et al. They even have a motorbike that was vandalized by the King of Kowloon (RIP). As far as I know, this is one of only two places where this once ubiquitous HK street scrawler can be publicly viewed (see below). Drinks at Bibo start at like 160 HK$, and by the time we get there they're already closing, which is fine for me because I'm content riding my fourth or fifth or whatever coffee wave of the evening.

We continue walking, from Soho to Poho (ha, HK). I wanted to check out this place Po's Atelier, because it's run by P.K.14 drummer Jonathan Leijonhufvud, but they closed hours ago and it's probably for the best because I can't really afford artisanal bread, and one more coffee might make my heart explode, for real. So we take one of those absurdly narrow buses they have in Hong Kong and ride on to an as-yet-unnamed 'Ho (NoHo?) to check out this spot XXX:

XXX is a new-ish underground electronic music club on Hong Kong island, kind of an anomaly in a scene otherwise dominated by clubs oriented toward the conspicuous consumption fetish that the local clientele is by and large more into. The night we go is pretty dead — this Macanese bass music producer Noise808 is playing aggressive, extremely loud trap music for his girlfriend and maybe four guys in ballcaps. The owner of the club is playing ping pong and the woman at the door is watching cartoons on her laptop. Still, I can see XXX as being the kind of spot I'd be hanging around if I lived in Hong Kong. Taiwan's White Fungus crew recently popped through for the HK launch of their new Subconscious Restaurant experimental music mag, so it's good to know that Hong Kong has at least one underground spot with a more open booking sensibility that isn't a university or a rock club (see below).


Catch like three hours of sleep, then it's off to the Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry Pier to scope the one preserved, public Kowloon King piece. Dude used to be all over this area of Kowloon, and by all over, I mean really ALLOVER. Here are some samples of his style:

Alas, the King, who passed away in 2007 (he was writing right up until he kicked it), has been mostly gentrified out of Kowloon. Riding the bus to the ferry, Christiaan points out an old KK graffiti wall that is now a Shanghai Tang, and another KK electrical box that is now a newer, un-painted electrical box. All that remains of the Kowloon King's legacy (outside of, presumably, pieces hoarded in the private collections of the BIBOs of the world), is this half-column at the TST ferry:

RIP. While we're here we take a quick trip across the bay back onto the island. This is mainly a tourist thing now, as the Central / Wan Chai Waterfront Reclamation project of the 1990s added a solid 15 minutes to the TST/Central ferry commute, so actual commuters just take the subway. Still, nice views:

That ferris wheel was apparently sitting in boxes on the pier for years while the sketchy South African arms dealer who was supposed to be building it was lamming it in Singapore (ha, HK!). Back on the Kowloon side is the old Beijing-Kowloon train terminal. If you were doing this visa trip during the Qing dynasty, it would take the better part of a week each way and this is where you would land in HK:

Next we MTR it back to Kowloon to roam around Sham Shui Po for a bit. The Hong Kong metro is fantastic. They've integrated this brilliant idea called "cross platform transfer," in which you can transfer from one line to another line by walking across the platform. GENIUS! In Beijing they're more into the "over the river and through the woods" style of transfer, which is a bit more old school. The only downside of the Hong Kong MTR is they enforce much stricter policies on carrying metallic balloons and packaging enough Ketamine to kill ten horses:

In Sham Shui Po, Christiaan recommends we check out Alchemink, a DIY tattoo studio operated by French artist Leon Lam. Alchemink is super rad. The space itself looks like a squat for wayward boddhisattvas:

Leon obliges us a short chat, even though his crew is getting ready for their first tat of the day. The work that comes out of Alchemink is really unique. Apparently Leon gets flown all over the world to tattoo famous people with his abstract, vaguely mystical gradient designs. Here are some choice cuts from their Instagram:

Alchemink is located in a third-floor walkup flat nestled in this highly aromatic flower market in Sham Shui Po. It's the only place in Hong Kong where I hear birds. Quite nice. Find their coordinates on the Facebook.


We venture a bit deeper into Sham Shui Po to visit White Noise, HK's best record store. When we get there, proprietor and veteran HK post-rock promoter Gary is inspecting the stacks.

full FM3 spread

I'm not sure if White Noise is a real record store or a mental projection of my ideal record store based on most of the albums I jammed incessantly in college. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have prominently displayed this deep cut of late '60s early electronic music freakness, White Noise - An Electric Storm:

They also have two identical cats. One of them is a deep Japanoise head, the other is more of a psych guy.

Also this: subjectively one of my all-time favorite bands, objectively one of the all-time great album titles:


On the way back to Christiaan's flat, we take a quick stroll through the Sham Shui Po electronics market. It's a wonderful place to buy dangly light strips, vintage boomboxes, "fell off the truck" Ableton Pushes, random heaps of junk, tube amps, and SO MANY MAGNETS OF VARIOUS SHAPES AND SIZES.


Quick snack stop before nightfall. The 7-11's in Hong Kong have their own thing going on for sure. Bought one of these Fanta White Chocolate Flavoured Slurpees for Morgan but it melted. :(

At first I thought this collagen drink pouch said "Weirder in Jelly" and I was like, "True."


And now, I finally arrive at my hidden agenda for this whole Hong Kong trip. It's a place way out in some godforsaken industrial high rise zone, actually called Hidden Agenda:

Yes, this whole trip, I was just biding my time, plying my brain with coffee upon coffee in the anticipation of finally seeing Japanese psych rock demigods Acid Mothers Temple live in concert. I was supposed to open for them at Yugong Yishan earlier in the year but that shit fell through. So when I found out that Hong Kong underground promoter Rolf (who makes noise under the delightful moniker Orgasm Denial) had worked out a Hong Kong date, I made the pilgrimage. Took a bunch of photos but they all look like my brain feels now (indecipherable). But here's one happy psychtripper hanging backstage post-gig:

After that was another Tsui Wah stop, a bit of shit-talking with Sacco, another three hours of sleep, then an early bus back to HKIA. I get my stamp back in to China Proper on September 15, which is lucky because my last "enter before" date on the current visa is September 16. Should have double checked that months ago! Lucky I made my flight too, because this massive fucking typhoon hit literally hours after I bounced. So HK!

In any case, you're stuck with me for at least another 120 days, Beijing.


Cover image and a few inside from Alchemink's I