Alternatives for Performance: Interview with Nerve on the development of his performance since COVID in Hong Kong

Date of original interview: 22 October 2021; UPDATED: February 2023


This interview with Steve Hui, aka Nerve, originally took place in October 2021, and was part of my PhD research into the live-streaming of experimental music in Hong Kong and Mainland China during the COVID-19 restrictions. Hui is an artist, educator, and co-founder of the Twenty Alpha live venue that has been situated in the Foo Tak Building in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district since March 2018. Twenty Alpha has become one of the main venues in Hong Kong for non-mainstream music and performance generally, and with the COVID-19 restrictions became a base for broadcasting events when audiences could not be invited in. This interview reviews Hui’s approaches to performance over this period, both the broadcasts from Twenty Alpha, as well as the group and solo performances he took part in the tunnels, walkways, and trams of Hong Kong, some of which were live-streamed.

COVID-19 in Hong Kong

Edward Sanderson (ES): I believe the first announcement of COVID in Hong Kong was in February 2020. What was the situation like for you then?

Steve Hui (SH): It was quite traumatic for me. In January 2020 I was in Europe, touring with Absurd TRAX. I came back to Hong Kong on January 30 and then the next day we rehearsed here in Twenty Alpha for the project 0202 2020, an online program lasting for 24 hours non-stop and which was due to happen on February 2. If we hadn’t had this performance, I think I may have stayed in Europe a little bit longer. We had a few members of the audience live in this space, but basically Twenty Alpha was our streaming centre and we would invite people to watch the performance online.

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Interview with Kit Chan at Islander’s Space


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.

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Critical Music 6: Interview with Li Jianhong and Wei Wei

Critical Music series: This series of posts focuses on individuals, groups, or organisations that have played notable roles in the history of critical music practices in China. These practices appear in many different guises, often related to concepts such as “experimental music” or “sound art”, although neither term is entirely satisfactory in describing the practices which often exist in many hybrid forms. My adoption of the term “critical music” (following the writings of G Douglas Barrett) attempts to avoid the limitations of these terms, while highlighting the active nature of the sound component of the practices. These posts will primarily take the form of interviews, each one aiming to place the subject within the general history of critical music practices in China, and contextualise their current practice within their overall development.

Welcome to the sixth interview in this series, and the last for a while. It’s a real pleasure and an honour to be able to publish this interview with Li Jianhong and Wei Wei, the couple who in their various ways have been central figures in the experimental music scene in China for many years. Originally from Hangzhou, Li and Wei Wei were both involved in the music scenes in that city before coming to Beijing around 2011. Since then they have been highly visible with their solo projects as well as performing together under the names Mind Fibre and Vagus Nerve. This interview concentrates on their early musical development, the 2pi Festival that Li founded in Hangzhou in 2003, and their thoughts about improvisation and the state of the experimental music scene in Beijing.

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New iPhone apps for China

Explore Beijing Subway map ($0.99/£0.59)

This is the latest release in exploremetro’s series of iPhone apps, complementing their online interactive maps, and Beijing’s turn follows the already released app for Shanghai (Guangzhou and Hong Kong versions are also due).

As with most of subway apps I’ve seen, the entry view is the overall plan of the routes. At first I was a little confused as there was no icon strip on the screen – all the other maps I had used relied on a menu bar to guide the user to the various functions. However this difference shows the creativity that has gone into this app, so much functionality has been incorporated into the map itself simplifying the interface as much as possible.

On the map you can find the important information you’ll need when taking these routes through Beijing, including bi-lingual subway names (plus audio recordings of the Chinese name to save any embarrassing pronunciation faux-pas); first and last train times in each direction and for each line the station serves; and an intuitive route planner with journey times and fares.

Some things which would be nice to see in an update would be information about entrances to the stations; the presentation of the routes could be a little clearer than just the orange dots as it is at the moment; and the ability to double-tap on the map to zoom in (a strange omission).

Overall, if I was a first-time traveller in Beijing, this would make travelling on the subway much less of the daunting experience it could be. And as a (relatively) seasoned traveller here, I’ll also be keeping this app on my iPhone as its ease of use beats the other Beijing subway apps I’ve tried. Recommended.

The Financial TImes Little Book of Business Travel (free)

In these straitened times, China is obviously still a business destination with potential, as evidenced by the fact that the Financial Times has entered the travel guide marketplace with their Little Book of Business Travel (LBBT) for China.

This simple app includes a fair amount of information and data about the cities of Beijing, Hong Kong/Macao and Shanghai as well as providing well presented background about various aspects of business life in China in general. Although not extensive, the level of the information is appropriately pitched at the requirements of the high end business traveller.

LBBT includes a series of articles by experts, including members of the FT team past and present, and various guest writers for added depth in some of the subjects. The app starts with background information about the country – covering the politics & economy, business etiquette, a China constitutional guide (facts and figures), a sheet of economic data and a map of the country. One criticism I have is that these last two are rather tricky to use – the data is presented on a single page which can’t be zoomed into, making reading difficult.

The app then covers the cities in more detail, addressing the essentials of transport, business info, sleeping and eating. These are essentially small directories of the better quality restaurants, hotels, and business services organisations, with a short review and basic data for each one. The “Activities” sections gives introductions to the various extra-curricular sides to the cities, from shopping, sightseeing, spas and culture, with some fair recommendations to start the visitor off.

Given my background I was interested to see how art faired within the FT’s scheme of things. Given the limited space available, art actually fairs pretty well, at least it is not completely excised – there is obviously hope for the future of this sector! In the section for Beijing, I noticed that 798 Art District gets it’s own small entry within the “Shopping” section, recommending that the “financial crash” makes it a “great time to look around and buy” there. It’s evident that 798 has found its niche as a shopping district rather than one of Culture (which forms another section dealing mainly with the performing arts and museums) for the app’s potential audience – which does lead to the anomaly that in the Hong Kong section you will find the Asia Art Archives also listed under Shopping – AAA being a library and archive which has no commercial side.

To begin with I was skeptical about this app. Its focus seemed very superficial, but the more I investigated its content the more I appreciated the solution FT had come up with for the mountain of data from which they had to choose. This app does not trying to rival the Lonely Planet or Rough Guides for example, the motives of its audience are quite different. Aside from my quibble about classifications, for the business person who still has enough cash after the crash, and not enough time to go in depth, this app will serve as a useful starting point.