This blog post marks a return to the originally intended subject matter of my recently-completed PhD – that being a study of the physical spaces for the performance of experimental music and sound art in China. Such was my original direction, before the outbreak of COVID-19 forced performance spaces to close (temporarily or, in some cases, permanently), and all public gatherings to be restricted, a situation which led me to consider live-streaming as a space of performance for many of the same artists under these conditions. So here we are, in the long-tail of COVID-19, and while in the near future I plan to return to Mainland China to resume my fieldwork, in the meantime there are spaces in Hong Kong, where I live, that I can learn from.
The interview below stemmed from my first visit to Peng Chau, one of the outer islands of Hong Kong and an hour’s ferry trip from the main urban area of the city. That trip was for a performance by Karen Yu and Olivier Cong, part of a series of experimental music events organised by the musician Nelson Hiu and hosted by the Islander’s Space bookshop. Through Nelson I contacted Kit Chan, one of the owners of Islander’s Space, and had a conversation with him about the space and its relation to the performance of experimental music, and the island’s overall social dynamic. Many thanks to Kit for his time and patience on this.
Edward Sanderson (ES): What is Islander’s Space, and how long has it been open?
Kit Chan (KC): We opened this space two years ago, but I moved to Peng Chau eight years ago. At that time, it was really a retirement island, you could probably count about ten people of my age here. It’s that kind of demographic. But now you have so many different groups here, you cannot really count how many are newcomers. So our space is more for these people, the local locals, and not only for tourists.
ES: Why did you move here?
KC: Before I moved here, I lived in Sham Shui Po [an urban area on the Kowloon peninsula in Hong Kong] for a couple of years. But I wanted to experience the feeling of living on an island for an extended period. And at that time there were no tourists at all on Peng Chau.
ES: At that point did you have a shop?
KC: To begin with I opened the shop across the street, which was an antique shop, mainly for tourists. My business partner has since taken over that space. The current space is where I hope to serve more of an insider/outsider mix of people.
ES: Is this space also your home?
KC: We rent this space to run our business. At the same time, we see the possibility of using it both as a shop for the village and a house for ourselves. So now it’s the same space: for our daily routine, this front area is the shop and behind here is our home. The shop is mainly a bookshop, with some groceries. The groceries are more for the neighbourhood, while the books are more for cultural people, and the locals also donate books to us.
ES: Are there many shops like this on the islands? How does the local community respond to this kind of shop? It seems bit out of the ordinary.
KC: Yes, it’s a little bit like that. The local shops are usually more like the 茶餐厅 [cafés]. We are like a new generation of shop, we are trying to run something to fit our needs, the needs of tourists, while some part is also for the locals. The really local people rarely come in and this is a barrier we are trying to break through, by having some workshops or activities that target the really “local” locals.
ES: What sort of thing would those activities be?
KC: Other than the bookshop and performances we do workshops to teach languages, or organise sensory therapy sessions, reiki, a lot of these. One thing we did last year was quite successful in penetrating the local community. Peng Chau has quite a strong paper-craft tradition for the local festivals. There are still the old masters doing these four- or five-metre-high paper crafts, while the rest of Hong Kong imports them from China. We asked one of these masters to have a class for teaching lantern making for the Autumn Festival. This gave us a good reputation amongst the local people; they recognised that we are not just doing what we want.
ES: I would say that this kind of space attracts younger people. Is there much of a community of younger people here, like students?
KC: The non-local visitors are mainly young, yes. But we think our main audience should be local – for the recent performances around one third or half of the people are from here. We serve those people.
ES: You have obviously survived. Is it easy to keep going here?
KC: It’s not so easy for this kind of place. I have some other part-time work that helps support this. A lot of our work in this space is project-based, like we publish the Islander zine, and we have some collaborations with other design centres. We make and publish the magazine ourselves, although we ask other people to work on the design. Sometimes we write articles about islands for magazines. There was also an exhibition in Wan Chai in which we showed some of our work, for which we designed a package for exploring the island. This is the sort of thing we do. Every time it is something different, so it’s difficult to generalise.
KC: Part of the reason we opened Islander’s Space is that we organised the Inter-Island Festival which was due to happen in 2020 but was postponed, and in the end it took place in March 2021. Instead of things just happening during the Festival after which nothing carried on, we wanted to have somewhere grounded. The space’s principal aims were to continue the Festival, to connect people on the island, and also to connect people between the islands, as it was an “inter-island” festival. We hoped to make connections with the other islands such as Mui Wo and Cheung Chau, etc.
ES: Did you organise the festival?
KC: Yes, we were the organiser of the Festival. At the beginning Nelson Hiu approached us to be a curator of some experimental music events. This was exactly what we wanted, so we started working with him and tried many things. At the beginning we made it very 街坊, i.e. neighbourhood-related. The first show was free, and the neighbourhood artists joined. For instance, the first show included a local poet, who worked in drama, and she worked with Nelson for a show mixing drama and music together. For the following shows it became a little bit of everything. At some point, Nelson chose to use Islander’s Space for performances because of the sonic quality of the space – somehow the acoustics are good for vocals and for some experimental things. Nelson felt that it was the right kind and size of space for performance and had many possibilities for experimental shows. After that a few of our shows were very experimental.
But we find that it’s very difficult to attract an audience for experimental music. This is fair, we understand! For that reason, in the last few shows we have tried to go a little bit more popular – but not super-popular. For instance, Daniel Chu played a wide range of pop music, but improvised with it. It is still experimental, but a little bit popular as well.
Experimental sound events and studying Peng Chau
ES: Do you know much about the experimental music scene in Hong Kong generally? Is this something you are following.
KC: For me, no.
ES: How did you know about Nelson Hiu then?
KC: He lives on Peng Chau. It’s a small island, and we already knew of him through word of mouth, and we had seen him perform in another shop on Peng Chau. The point when we really started our working relationship was for the Inter-Island Festival. Nelson also started a monthly series of experimental concerts from November 2021.
ES: I see from your posters outside the shop that you are also working with soundpocket [a Hong Kong-based non-profit focused on commissioning sound-related projects] as well?
KC: That is part of a series of workshops, called 借一借海岸線 Borrowing the Shoreline, that we are doing to research Peng Chau in different ways. soundpocket is one of the organisations we invited to host a “Sound Collecting” workshop. The other workshops are for “Model Making” with the paper craftsman I mentioned before; “Sketching” with a landscape designer; my partner is an urbanist and will organise the “Mapping” event; “Eco-fiction” is with Wenda Yiu who is an artist from WMA [a photography non-profit]; and “Storytelling” is with Leung Po-shan from the Lamma Island Project, and he is collaborating with a university in Geneva for this.
COVID-19 and live-streaming
ES: How did the COVID situation affect the islands, and you specifically?
KC: In the city on the main island of Hong Kong, this area is usually very crowded. But with COVID everyone wanted to get away from there and they all decided to go out to similar places, like the islands. At one point Cheung Chau was more crowded than Mong Kok [one of Hong Kong’s main shopping areas]! To begin with this was just at the weekends and public holidays. But when people could not easily leave Hong Kong, all their travel needs were also spent on the islands. So, COVID-wise, we were the reverse of the city – it became much more crowded here. There were a few times, when COVID was at its peak, when it was so busy here on Peng Chau. There are only two streets here and you could barely move! It’s difficult to imagine!
ES: Were you affected by any COVID lockdowns at all?
KC: No. But we used to serve coffee in this space, and during the COVID time we shut that down and just opened as the bookshop.
ES: Part of my research was about the use of live-streaming for experimental music during COVID-19. Have you ever done any live-streaming from this space?
KC: So far, we have only used live-streaming for a book sharing event my partner organised with an author in Canada who couldn’t physically be here. Generally speaking, it went ok. The audience were here in Islander’s Space, and the writer was online from Canada, so this was fine. Because our target audience is the people around here in the neighbourhood, we haven’t tried live-streaming for music or other kinds of sharing.
The issue of the audience
ES: What is your audience like, and where are they coming from?
KC: With the experimental music, our last concert encountered a little bit of a problem with the number of people coming. This was a performance by Olivier Cong and Karen Yu, who are kind of famous. This was a situation where the artist is very famous and you have too many outside people coming in. In fact, we got quite a lot of complaints after this. We have to see how we can control the crowd better. But maybe this is not what we want to do, as they already have their audience.
But we are still carrying on with some experimental music events, but it’s about creating a balance to fit the needs of this space. Now our idea is to shift to having more screenings in the space or in the backyard.
ES: Were the complaints due to the fact that Islander’s Space is on a back street? The cafes on the shore-front in the next street are presumably often going to be busy, but do they get complaints?
KC: Yes, the shore front is busy, but where we are is between the shop and restaurant areas, so this is kind of a grey area. At the same time, if I wanted to just do a space for experimenting and I didn’t care about the neighbours, then probably this is a way out. After the last event we were approached by a number of people with an interest in collaboration. There have been a few musicians asking to use the space, you have asked me for this interview, and other media have contacted me as well. This makes me feel that, for outsiders, Islander’s Space is a “way out”.
ES: What do you mean by a “way out”?
KC: I would say that there is obviously a need for this kind of space, and everyone is looking for such a thing. It is exotic, and people are looking for a place where different things happen. But maybe this is not the direction we want to go in, or we have to shift our focus a little bit to manage this. We don’t want to be part of a process of gentrification.