A typical Saturday night in Tsim Sha Tsui’s Star Ferry Pier might bring about images of dense crowds of tourists taking photos, buskers populating the entire pier walkway, and audiences surrounding them as they gave music enthusiasts and passerby alike a taste of their musical abilities.
However, on the 21st night of September, while tourists still toured, buskers still busked, and watchers still watched, one might notice that the pier was much more tranquil compared to the usual Saturday night hustle and bustle. Tourists came and went in smaller groups. Buskers performed every two or three piers away from each other. And aside one or two crowds of audiences, most people just walked by, looking uninterested.
Perhaps one of the side effects of the waves of anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong, social activities in the city seemed to have reduced in general, particularly during weekends when protestors would take to the streets. Residents might stay at home to avoid conflicts between protestors and the police. Besides, many tourists have steered clear of Hong Kong entirely, having seen a 4.8% drop in overall incoming visitors as compared to July last year based on the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s July 2019 statistics.
Busking is no different. Public music performances seemed to have come to a lull since the protests began, much like the situation in Tsim Sha Tsui on 21st September. Have the protests really acted as a big impediment to buskers and audiences alike?
“There’s definitely been less people watching,” said the guitarist for the group 嬲住先 (which roughly translates to Stay Angry First), who requested to remain unnamed. “I’m guessing people would stay away from the streets for their own safety. We’ve also started to busk less because of that.”
Apart from safety issues, he also mentioned traffic as one of the factors why he, and possibly other buskers, are avoiding public performances. “Transport’s become less convenient,” the guitarist said, referring to the occasions when protest activities result in MTR stations closing.
Meanwhile, despite being one of the few groups of the night that attracted a sizeable crowd, Kingsley Kwok, the guitarist and singer/rapper of a duo act alongside fellow singer/rapper and cajonist Fong “Ah Kat” Ho Kat, made a slightly similar observation on the reduced number of people, though from a different perspective.
“The protests haven’t affected us too much,” Kwok said. “The clashes that occurred in Tsim Sha Tsui hasn’t touched this area. Still, we busk regularly usually on Fridays or weekends, and we could see that there’s less of a flow of people around here. And weekends are usually when most people would come out. I guess this is probably because more and more people are taking part in the rallies.”
However, political movements seemed to only be part of the problem. Kwok spoke of Hong Kong’s busking culture and how it has itself led to a decline in busking activity and appreciation since before June 2019, when the protests began.
“There was a surge in buskers a while back,” he recalled. “Even if we just focus on this area here outside the Cultural Centre. At the height of that period, there would be at least one, sometimes two, groups of people busking at every pier. It became so crowded that some buskers would crank up their volume to compete against the others. Having to face off against people who performed so loudly has probably drove some buskers away.
“And it doesn’t help that Mong Kok became off-limits for buskers,” Kwok added, referring to the closure of Sai Yeung Choi Street’s pedestrian zone in 2018. “Many middle-aged people who used to sing there switched to Tsim Sha Tsui to continue singing to backing tracks really loudly.”
Indeed, even as Kwok spoke standing next to the Clock Tower, from the far end of the pier’s entrance/exit hub came the shrill sound of a woman singing along to an old Cantonese song. “They can’t be reasoned with,” he continued. “And younger buskers would really rather avoid them.”
Audiences, too, played a part in busking culture. As Kwok further explained, there was a change in audience structures, and a reduction of eager watchers.
“A year or two ago, some would deliberately come out to watch buskers perform,” he said. “Nowadays, for some reason, you’d find a lot less people who come here to stop and listen, particularly younger people.
“Personally, there’s just been… less of busking in Hong Kong these days,” he concluded.
Then again, little as busking might have become in this city, it certainly isn’t gone, and it certainly goes on. Be it the civil unrest or the general deterioration of Hong Kong’s busking culture, nothing has stopped more determined buskers from performing, nor have they stopped those who are interested from watching. During their performance, Kwok and Fong invited the crowd to chant along in the chorus of their acoustically upbeat cover of Cantonese rapper JB’s “F**KTHEPOPO”. The crowd slowly but eventually complied, their combined voices seemibgly breaking through the wave of tranquil in Hong Kong busking.