Date of interview: 14 December 2022
SAAL is a DIY live music venue which opened in its latest location in Hong Kong’s Kwun Tong area in 2016. It was one of the few smaller-scale spaces in Hong Kong in which local experimental musicians could cut their teeth, as well as a destination for like-minded artists visiting from abroad. There aren’t many such small places for experimental performance in Hong Kong, and so SAAL (taken from the German, meaning a small hall, room, or chamber) represented an important part of the underground music scene here. In 2020 the owners, Leo and William, placed SAAL on hiatus due to the COVID-19 situation as well for various other reasons, so in this interview I wanted to ask them about the development of SAAL, what the space represented for them, for the artists that made use of it, and for Hong Kong more generally, and why they closed the space and their plans for the future. Along the way they pay tribute to their colleague Albert Leung who passed away in 2019, and why noise music in particular needs live spaces to be experienced.
Edward Sanderson (ES): So why did you decide to start a performance space?
Leo: For me, SAAL just happened; I was not planning on creating SAAL. For some people it’s different, they plan this. Maybe you know the Foo Tak Building in Wan Chai? They have some live spaces in there, like Twenty Alpha, which is a specific space in which to make music. But for us, we did not plan for this, it was just that we had the space, so we did something here.
At first, we didn’t host experimental or noise music. That only came later when we were lucky enough to meet Eddie Hui and Dennis Wong.
ES: Going back to the beginning, then, what were you doing before SAAL, and why did you feel the need for such a space?
Leo: To talk about our history, we need to talk about my other space called L’Aprés Midi, which I opened as a very small art gallery in September 2011 in Tai Hang.1 In October 2012 we closed this space,2 and in 2015 moved to a space in Kwun Tong. But before we closed, I arranged a little street music event.3 This was the very beginning of our working with music.
Then, about two years later, I got back in contact with my friend Albert Leung (who sadly passed away recently). Albert was really important for SAAL. From 1986–1989 we were colleagues working for various magazines produced by the same company – this was 30 years ago! After that I went to Paris to study, and he was working with another organisation. In 1995 I returned to Hong Kong, but it wasn’t until 2015 when Albert and I met up again one day and I mentioned that I was looking for a place to set up a little gallery, and he said he was also looking for a place to set up a little office. So, we began working together and found a space in the Kwun Tong Industrial Building.
Then I arranged some events inside this space, and I asked Albert to help me. We started with music events, but we also organised vinyl records markets, an Electronic Music Seminar, and some other things. I like Jazz primarily, so I called some Jazz people I knew to come and play here. Albert was the real technical specialist for our sound and music. He had engineered many events in other music spaces before, so he knew all about the technical arrangements for sound.
We ran that space for about one year, and then the landlord raised the rent. We originally paid about 14,000 HKD, and then they raised it to 20,000 HKD! For us that was an impossible amount – it was crazy! So, we gave it up and didn’t have any space for a while. We were still looking for a small place to use as an office, and luckily we found the current space which was double the size of the previous one and just 17,000 HKD for the rent.
In our previous space we were sharing with some other people who also used it for their office, but when we moved in here it was just the three of us – William, Albert, and me. The previous tenants must have had some performances before, so it already had a stage area. We agreed that we should also present music again because this stage somehow created the music! We still needed to buy the mixing desk, the cables, and speakers, but the stage was already there and I just had to paint the walls. In April 2016 we had our re-opening event in the current space.4
Fitting out SAAL
ES: About the equipment, in the previous space did you hire the equipment, or did people bring their own?
Leo: At that time, most of the equipment would be brought by the bands. But after we came here, I wanted to do it properly so I bought a lot of things. At first, I bought an amp, and proper cables, and a year later I bought the projector, and a drum kit, keyboard, and the stands – all of it I bought piece by piece.
ES: Did you buy special equipment for the experimental or noise music in particular?
William: Actually, our speakers are designed for much bigger spaces. During our usual events, we were only using them at 50% level on the desk. For noise music, we might push it higher, but to no more than 70% to be safe.
Leo: Actually, the audio set up for indie music is more difficult than for noise music. With noise music, there are normally just the two jacks for the output, and the artist controls everything themselves with their own mixing panel. But with indie music there are drums, bass guitar, double bass, etc. which each have their own mics, and sometimes the band doesn’t want the output to come directly from the instrument but they want to mic the amp itself.
William: The most common problem is with the drummer: they hit too hard and the singer sings too softly, so you can’t hear their vocals. But if we amplify their singer’s mic too much, we get feedback. Sometimes we have to put an acrylic box around the drummer.
ES: Speaking of noise, how were relations with your neighbours? I assume that the people in this building don’t really care what you’re doing, but did you ever have any complaints?
Leo: For some spaces noise can be a problem. If this was a residential building, the neighbours would certainly complain. We’re able to be here and make noise because this is an industrial building – its structure is made for heavy machines – the concrete is very thick and heavy. None of our neighbours has ever come in here to complain, but sometimes there is noise from our neighbours! We should complain [laughs]! Noise in this kind of building is normal, so nobody complains.
ES: You were obviously quite confident that you could stay here. Did you not worry that the rent would also go up here and you would have to move again?
Leo: This building’s landlord was an old man. He was very kind and said we could use the space for two years without any major rent increases.
ES: What were your plans for the space then?
Leo: We had no plans! We just used this space to do all the things we were interested in. We each had different characters and roles: Albert was more interested in alternative music and noise. Of course, I liked that too, but I focussed on other genres – the indie bands and Jazz. William was the technical specialist, and also generally our supporter and helping out. We arranged some talks about music, and we also did some listening events to compare recordings on CD and vinyl.
It was at that time that we also started to work with Dennis Wong.5 We first met Dennis through our friend Eddie Hui, who was another colleague of mine in the advertising agency. Eddie is now in London, studying music. Eddie played some noise and alternative music and put me in touch with Dennis. Although, when Dennis came to play, I found that Albert had already met him. The world is so small!
Dennis was a really important person for us because he arranged many of our noise music events. When we moved to this space, Dennis suggested that he could also invite people to perform, so he became part of the team: Dennis for noise, Albert for alternative music, and me for Jazz. He would tell us that he knew of some people coming to Hong Kong who wanted to play, and we could just ask him to invite them here. So, Dennis is very important for connecting us with these people.
By 2018, Dennis was organising an event nearly every month. This was a very exciting time! Incredible people were coming to play. I remember one musician was a professor from Korea!6 They set up many old hard discs on a board which made noises when they crashed, which was how he played them.
ES: How far ahead did you organise events?
Leo: Normally, it was one or two months in advance. I might organise a Jazz event for the first week, and the second week Albert organised something, and the last week was for Dennis to organise. We could also cooperate on some things and adapt the schedule when necessary. But it was not very detailed planning. Albert, William, and I were all working on our own jobs in the office here, so we could easily discuss our plans, while Dennis sometimes would let us know that in two months’ time, he had a friend coming to Hong Kong who wanted to play some music, so we set up the dates for him. Aside from the music events, sometimes we organised some other interesting events, but not often – maybe only a few times each year. For instance, I organised a market for some friends to sell their toys – actually, this was really popular.
Music scenes and spaces
ES: How did you feel about your relationship to the Hong Kong music scene? Did you feel yourself to be part of a community? Or were you just doing your own thing?
Leo: I’m not into the scenes because I’m not a musician. But I am interested in them and I met a lot of those people, and I liked to help people arrange their events. I think Albert was deeper into the scenes. He played and listened to noise music, and he was able to talk about its history. Albert was a professional!
ES: Is Hong Kong a difficult place for experimental music, or a particularly difficult place to set up a space like SAAL?
Leo: Yeah, it’s very difficult. I think it’s difficult everywhere—even in somewhere like London—but in Hong Kong it’s more difficult. Because it seems that the government does not like people playing alternative music, noise music, or loud music generally. They just want to sell pop music. I think because that is easier to control.
Albert, Dennis, and I discussed this topic before, with many other people too. I think that “alternative” people and those involved in alternative music are single minded and have a creative mind. For the government this is not good, it’s a problem. If you have your own mind, you are difficult to control. Music and art always have the same problem because they create people with their own minds.
ES: Were you thinking that SAAL would make money?
Leo: We lost a lot of money, but we were happy! In Hong Kong, the rent is very high. Each time we had an event the maximum audience was from 40 to 60 people, but a noise gig would only attract maybe 20 or 30 people. We only charged 100 HKD for entry, so a full house of 40 people is just 4,000 HKD. The rent was 17,000 HKD – totally different!
For the music events, if we were lucky, we had 20 in the audience, but sometimes it’s just three, four, or five people. I don’t know if it’s a fault of our promotion or because people are not interested in noise in Hong Kong, but there were never many people.
ES: But you also sold drinks?
Leo: Yes, but those were a very small part of our income.
ES: Do you think any spaces like this can make money?
Leo: I think most spaces like this lose money, or maybe break even. They need to have some other work for survival. If the space were bigger, you could have more people, but this exposes you to more risk. You would need to get an official license, and you would need to fix a lot of things in the space. Most places are not allowed to set up a stage. In Hong Kong if you set up a space for performing music you need the Places of Public Entertainment Licence.7 Then you need separate Restaurant and Liquor Licences to sell food and alcohol, and another licence if you are live broadcasting.8 Getting all these licenses makes things much more complicated; you need to go to the police office and get their approval. If you apply for all of these licenses, they will come to check the space. They will say you need the door to be a particular size, of a certain type, the air conditioning needs to be a certain way, you can’t use this type of curtain – there are many, many special things to fix. All of which cost money. A small space is more controllable, easier to manage.
ES: I feel like Hong Kong lacks small spaces like SAAL, but I think they are very important. Of course, as we’ve discussed, there’s the issue of whether a small space can make enough money, but institutional support often only goes to the larger spaces which might be more visible but then they don’t seem to be receptive to experimental performance. So I think scenes need a range of different sizes of space.
Leo: The world needs a lot of different spaces. The small spaces are good for musicians to try things out. If they jump straight to the big spaces, they can’t handle it.
William: And no one will know about them and no people will come.
Leo: In SAAL we let them try things out, they could learn by trial and error with a small audience here. Sometimes a band will come in and ask how to set up the pop screen, where to stick this plug, they may only have a jack cable, they don’t have this kind of XL jack, or things like this. They don’t know how to use the equipment and the space, so they need to learn in a small space first.
William: They also need to learn how to cooperate with each other on the stage, not just in their band room. The sound is different in each case, totally different.
Leo: When they stand on stage, the technical side of things, the skills necessary, and the way they perform are totally different from in a band room, a studio, or even when they busk on the street. You need some space to learn this, and I think SAAL let them learn how to work on the stage – not just how to perform, but how to cooperate with the technical setup, the sound engineer, and between themselves as a band.
SAAL on hiatus
ES: Can we talk about the why you stopped organising events at SAAL?
Leo: There were a lot of social problems in Hong Kong in 2019 and we stopped around the middle of that year.9
One afternoon two people came in who said they were police and were checking all the tenants in the building. I invited them in, and they commented that we didn’t look like an office (we were listed as being an office). But I insisted that that was what we were. After that visit I suggested to the others that maybe we should stop organising events and take a rest. After that we just took it day by day.
William: “Day by day” – this is never ending with COVID-19!
Leo: We stopped all the events and built a room where the stage was.
William: We rented it to a film-making crew where they do post-production and use it for storage.
Leo: Well, we still need to pay the rent. The main goal was money. The other problem was that Albert got sick in late 2018, and passed away in 2019. Before that the three of us were perfect, we shared roles really efficiently: I arranged the events, William arranged the equipment, Albert arranged the alternative music – we worked together. But we lost Albert, and it became difficult to arrange things.
William: Albert was a great partner. Apart from organising events, he was also a designer and promoter. He organised so many cooperations with other people, including the records markets and the sessions where we compared recordings on CD and vinyl.
ES: How do you see things in the future? With Albert passing away in 2019, the social movements and then COVID-19, and Dennis leaving Hong Kong in 2022, do you see things returning to the way they were at any point?
Leo: We tried to keep things going, but so many things happened at once in 2019 that we decided to close. But we are happy we were able to open in the first place! At this moment, I don’t want to do anything, but maybe after a few years we can start again.
William: Actually, I don’t think we can see or forecast long-term.
Leo: A lot of people have left Hong Kong. Eddie Hui also left to study in London. It seems many of the active people have now left Hong Kong, or are not happy here.
ES: You had already stopped doing live events by the time COVID-19 arrived in early 2020. Did you try live streaming as an alternative?
Leo: We had tried this before, so we set up a couple of live-streams because of the COVID restrictions. But it seems Hong Kong people are not very into organising or participating in live-streams.
William: Maybe it is because in Hong Kong people are too close together, in small places, so they prefer to get out and join live performances in the real world, not on the internet.
Leo: With noise music, in particular, you also need the impact of a live experience. That goes for other forms of music as well – you need to listen to them live. Why should it be that we still have live music, even now? We have so many different media, like MP3, CD, all these things – why do we still need live music? Because you need the impact with the music! Music is sensory. If you’re live streaming you can’t get this sense of the music.
- Photos from the opening of L’Aprés Midi: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.233197436732381&type=3 ↵
- L’Aprés Midi in Tai Hang closed on 20 Oct 2012: https://www.facebook.com/lapresmidigallery/photos/a.249297148455743/447704618614994 ↵
- Photos from the street music event: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151478754942757&type=3 ↵
- Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/lapresmidigallery/posts/pfbid02791n9nZM5AWvSKBdbCTYNxh4e8Lfqyd1wQs8bKbahyMGKTEaM55TEKpHRfkHd3eSl ↵
- Dennis Wong, aka Sin:Ned, sonic medium now based on Vancouver, Canada: https://www.facebook.com/zin.neb ↵
- Jin Sangtae 진상태, performing at Noise to Signal 0.49: Next to Nothing organised by Dennis Wong at SAAL, 2 June 2018: https://facebook.com/events/s/noise-to-signal-049-next-to-no/175570043146868/ ↵
- Guide on Types of Licences Required: https://www.fehd.gov.hk/english/licensing/Guide_on_Types_of_Licences_Required.html ↵
- Application for Permitting Live Broadcast (other than Exhibition of Films) at Premises Issued with a Valid Places of Public Entertainment Licence (endorsed with cinematograph displays): https://www.fehd.gov.hk/english/forms/fehb250.html ↵
- Noise to Signal 0.57: 5Metsys*Aht*Kcuf, organised by Dennis Wong: https://www.facebook.com/events/490911284993348 ↵