On a Friday night in 1994, University of Massachusetts Amherst student Riz Farooqi sat on the stage of an underground venue, hardly believing that he was so close to a band that he had long heard about in his hometown, Hong Kong, but had never dreamed of seeing live.
Two decades later, something even more unbelievable would happen: Farooqi’s band King Ly Chee would be touring alongside that same band—hardcore legends Sick of it All—and carrying the banner for Asian hardcore.
“For me,” Farooqi says, “that was the finale. We toured with the band that first got me into hardcore; we became friends. I was ready to throw it in.”
The band’s triumph abroad, however, came at the tail end of a dismal ten years at home. After a brief reign as one of Hong Kong’s biggest bands in the early noughties, they had endured a decade of irrelevance. “For ten years of our lives, we were at the bottom of the bottom.”
After a stunning performance at the Clockenflap music festival last November, King Ly Chee are now focussing once again on the city that made them—but they’ve learnt the hard way not to put their faith in international tours or big-name festivals. Instead, they’re playing to crowds of just tens in a series of underground shows, looking to build a sense of community among local hardcore fans that will fill the space between yearly events like Clockenflap.
Playing at the festival, Farooqi says, was an unforgettable experience: performing to a massive, heaving crowd silhouetted by the dazzling Hong Kong skyline. Briefly, the band thought that after ten years on the margins, this was their long-awaited comeback gig. Coming at the tail end of their Asian tour alongside Sick of it All, Farooqi says it felt like they had come home to a heroes’ welcome.
But it wasn’t long before the bright lights faded and they came crashing back down to reality.
After electrifying an audience of hundreds at the festival’s Your Mum stage, the band was expecting a big turnout to their next show one month later at factory venue Hidden Agenda. Only 15 fans turned up that night. “It was horrible,” Farooqi admits.
But it was also just the beginning for a new phase in the trajectory of not only King Ly Chee but, Farooqi hopes, Hong Kong’s struggling hardcore scene.
Starting from scratch
Despite his praise for the professionalism of everyone involved with Clockenflap from stagehands to organizers, its impact on the local scene was disappointing.
[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]A lot of these people [at Clockenflap] probably just come out for this one event a year. But in between these events there are a million others that need your support.[/mks_pullquote]
No matter how many heads turned, how furiously they moshed or how thunderously they clapped, the audiences drawn to Clockenflap aren’t necessarily going to trudge out to Kwun Tong to catch your next show. “A lot of these people [at Clockenflap] probably just come out for this one event a year. But in between these events there are a million others that need your support.”
Instead of expecting a blow-out performance to launch them back into the orbit of local stardom, King Ly Chee have changed tack. Farooqi calls their new approach “start from scratch,” harkening back to the title of the fanzine he started in 1999 when the band was first getting off the ground.
“Forget everything you think you’ve established in Hong Kong,” Farooqi says. “It means nothing. If our name is on a flyer it doesn’t mean that show is going to be packed.” Instead, he wants to focus on small but regular shows that will foster ties between hardcore and punk fans and develop a scene strong enough to sustain local talent.
By inviting more bands from across the border and using his promotion platform Unite Asia to plug Hong Kong hardcore into a bigger, continental movement, he’s also banking on the creative potential of greater connectivity.
For Farooqi, hardcore is all about the give-and-take of being part of a community, and this has left him with mixed feelings about how the local scene has evolved over his 17-year career.
The relentless march of technology means that producing and recording music has never been easier, but while he applauds this increased accessibility and the young musicians taking advantage of it, he bemoans the loss of community it has engendered.
“These kids are stuck at home,” he laments. Recalling a competition he was recently invited to judge, he says that “nine-tenths [of the bands] said they didn’t go watch live shows. My jaw dropped. You can’t do that. You’re not supporting your community, the venues that need you to stay alive—you’re just taking.”
Farooqi admits that his faith in the scene’s underground roots and us-against-the-world esprit de corps is old-school and idealistic, but the veteran musician insists that it reflects a timeless ethos that we can apply to all walks of life: “It’s not just a punk rock thing—it’s a value for life. So even if you move on, become an investment banker and make millions, you’ll still give back to your community. It can’t all be about ‘me, me, me’.”
[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]Nine-tenths [of the bands] said they didn’t go watch live shows…. You can’t do that. You’re not supporting your community.[/mks_pullquote]
Lost in a world
The strength of Farooqi’s convictions is formed by two things: his experience as a show promoter in Hong Kong, seeing first hand the struggle that local venues face just to pay the rent and stay open; and his college years in America where he learned the value of community and the music’s power to bind people from different backgrounds together.
Just months after he was born in Pakistan, Farooqi relocated to Hong Kong with his parents. With one culture at home, another at international school and another dominating the city he lived in, Farooqi says that heavy metal music was his solace from the cultural cacophony of everyday life.
“When I look back now I can see the mayhem in my mind and why I needed this kind of music: something with a strong beat, loud guitars, and a vocalist who’s not the best singer but he’s screaming because there’s just so much inside him. Back then, though, I just knew I needed something loud blaring in my head. I’d put my headphones on, press play and I was done—I was good.”
Despite growing up as an ethnic minority in Hong Kong, Farooqi was fortunate to go to an international school where the diversity of his classmates meant he never felt unwelcome.
Ironically, moving to the melting pot of the United States prompted much more profound feelings of isolation. In overwhelmingly white western Massachusetts, gone was the comforting diversity of the Hong Kong international school and the friends with whom he shared a passion for skateboarding and heavy metal.
As he sat around one night wondering how to connect with his new roommates, a New England hippy and a baseball jock, one of them happened to read out the event listing of a free local paper. Farooqi was shocked to hear the names of bands that he only knew from CDs and magazines that school friends brought back from summer holidays in the States. He cajoled his roommates into going to a show that night.
Before long, he was writing and recording music and touring the region with his college band. Even though he “stuck out like a sore thumb,” Farooqi says his background was never an issue in the punk and hardcore scenes either in the States or Hong Kong, which welcomed anyone willing to say “‘fuck you’ to the mainstream world.”
Nevertheless, Farooqi was troubled by another form of segregation that pervaded even Hong Kong hardcore: that between expatriates and locals. Like many international school students, Farooqi grew up without learning a lick of Cantonese. At home he and his family conversed in Urdu; at school, English was the lingua franca.
After returning to Hong Kong and founding King Ly Chee in 1999, however, he was determined to bridge this gap and aggressively set out to learn Cantonese. Now, his songs, onstage banter and online writing are a uniquely Hong Kong tangle of English and Chinese. Although Farooqi says Hong Kong’s local-expat divide “has never been solved,” he’s happy to see mixed audiences at the band’s shows and hopes they’re part of the solution.
Still, in spite of their efforts to build up the local scene, its diminutive size and constantly changing demographics have prompted Farooqi to look further afield, reaching out to hardcore scenes both in Southeast Asia and mainland China to give themselves and other local bands a wider fan base capable of sustaining their creativity.
Punk’s not dead?
Since their early days, King Ly Chee have toured extensively on the mainland and, according to Farooqi, they always receive a more enthusiastic reception there. Even as the band is poised to begin their first U.S. tour, Guangzhou remains their favourite place to perform—somewhere familiar enough to appreciate their overtures to Cantonese identity, but with a fire that Hong Kong audiences simply lack.
Farooqi explains the irony that punk would take off in authoritarian, repressive China and not in freewheeling Hong Kong like this: until the last few years, Hongkongers had lived relatively easy lives. Here, he says, “it’s very much arms folded, no connection. They over-analyze everything because they’re just sitting there watching you. You’re going crazy on stage and they’re not even breaking a sweat. It’s not fun.” Up until this point in the territory’s history, he suggests, they haven’t lived with enough angst or anger to get it.
For younger mainlanders, however, dreams deferred have long been a fact of daily life.
“When we go to China,” he says, “we’re only on stage setting up our equipment and as soon as we turn the amp on people are freaking out. That’s what you want. You want people to come to the show and just have this visceral, animal reaction, where they’re just losing their minds because things in their regular life are so hard. Everything is so suppressed Monday-Friday and then they come to the show and just let it all out. It’s therapeutic.”
While he notes that the political temperature in Hong Kong has risen sharply during the tenure of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, Farooqi laments that this hasn’t been a boon for punk rock.
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]‘Stand up and fight’ means you feel that you have a voice and the power to change what’s going on. But you don’t in Hong Kong.[/mks_pullquote]
Instead, the King Ly Chee frontman says, apathy has skipped over anger and turned straight to hopelessness: “Punk is about ‘stand up and fight’—if that’s what you want to do, then punk is your soundtrack. But Hongkongers didn’t gravitate toward this music after Occupy; instead, they went to doom and gloom. They went to post-rock shows where you just close your eyes and let the music wash over you for 45 minutes.”
Farooqi isn’t bitter about punk’s denied renaissance, though. “‘Stand up and fight’ means you feel that you have a voice and the power to change what’s going on. But you don’t in Hong Kong. This city belongs to China. I totally get it.”
For all it’s high-decibel fury, punk rock is sustained by belief in the transformative power of anger—that righteous indignation is a unifying force and that screaming about injustice loud enough can change the world. If one does not believe that positive change is even possible, the appeal of punk is quickly lost.
King Ly Chee and their kin may never be the soundtrack of Hong Kong; but even if their sounds only echo in barely-filled rooms, their spirit of hopeful defiance will continue to be heard.