Running an independent live music and arts venue in Hong Kong is a challenging endeavour at the best of times, but doing so amid the Covid-19 pandemic borders on the impossible. And yet, despite a mandatory closure, social distancing restrictions, a ban on live performances, and no government funding, The Aftermath is refusing to let the fat lady sing just yet.
Alicia Beale opened The Aftermath on Wyndham Street with business partner Kyle Haynes in October 2018 to provide a space for aspiring bands and musicians to meet and perform in front of like-minded audiences. Described by Beale as a “mom and pop business”, they have since branched out to host comedy, cabaret and other arts events, building a small but loyal and steadily growing following along the way.
With coronavirus cases in Hong Kong rising dramatically in the second half of March, and a cluster emerging in nearby Lan Kwai Fong, Beale and Haynes decided to close The Aftermath temporarily from March 22. This meant postponing several events, including the well-publicised Affordable Tattoo Artfair, which was due to take place on March 26. “That was a very big decision, but it just felt like the right one in terms of everyone’s safety and health,” says Beale. The choice over when to reopen, however, was taken out of their hands when the government announced the mandatory closure of all bars, pubs and clubs for two weeks from April 3 – a ban that was later extended to five weeks. This was, says Beale, “A massive, massive blow”.
With no income, and uncertainty over when the government would allow them to reopen, Beale and Haynes had to let their only full-time staff member go. Their landlord, meanwhile, was initially reluctant to offer a rebate, but they eventually secured a “minor rent reduction” for three months that Beale says was “extremely hard-fought”.
This still left a sizable shortfall, so to enhance their chances of survival they launched a crowdfunding campaign among The Aftermath community. Under the scheme, anyone who bought vouchers during the closure period would get 20 per cent extra credit free to spend at the bar once the venue reopened. For example, a HK$500 voucher equalled HK$600 in “Aftermath Cash.”
“It was more successful than I thought,” says Beale. “Seeing how much so many people loved The Aftermath got us through this dark period, not just financially, but also purposefully. At some points we weren’t sure if we’d ever reopen, but to have that kind of support behind us really helped, people messaging all the time saying ‘we love the place, please don’t close!’ Some people even said they didn’t want the extra credit, and to take it as a donation. Once people begin to worry about losing something, they really feel how much it means to have it.”
Despite the government giving the green light for bars and entertainment venues to reopen on May 8, things have remained challenging for The Aftermath. Live performances and dancing are still banned, and social distancing restrictions remain in place. What is usually a free-standing area in front of the stage has been filled with small tables spaced 1.5 metres apart, and the performance schedule has been limited to DJs, stand-up comedy and quizzes. Standard measures such as temperature checks, health declaration forms and hand sanitising are also in place.
Nevertheless, Beale is upbeat. “A lot of our Aftermath community have come back, and there are more who are itching to come back but are perhaps just waiting for the right time. It’s been wonderful to open the bar and have so many of our community come through immediately to support us, to be here and to have a good time.”
Unfortunately for The Aftermath, which operates as a private members club that anyone is welcome to join, the venue is not eligible for any support from the government under the Anti-epidemic Fund. “The government is a very tricky beast,” says Beale, “and that can be challenging when you’re a grassroots organisation. The arts funding, where you can get HK$15,000 per art event cancelled, only went to government-funded organisations or organisers. So, if you did anything through the government or the Jockey Club, then you could apply and possibly get this funding. But if you did it on your own or at grassroots level, there was no funding.”
From Beale’s perspective, this is an area where there is significant room for improvement. “I think in general the government could do more to support arts at grassroots level – independent artists and organisers and curators outside of just the Jockey Club and the Arts Development Council, she says. “In terms of funding, the best support for The Aftermath would be to fund grassroots artists who in turn could use the money for doing shows in our space.”
Without such support, Beale believes the longer-term implications of the pandemic on the independent music and arts community could be dire. “I think the biggest impact is not so much the restrictions, but how hollowed out the businesses have been. The more people who’ve been out of work and realise their industry can’t support them during this kind of time, I think a lot of people are going to start going where they’re guaranteed a salary. We are going to have a drain in the arts community. In the music industry you have tour agents or managers who are sitting out of work not making any money, and they need to pay their bills, so they’re going to look for other work. People who are dreaming of becoming full-time musicians and even small part-time gigs – people who play in hotels, session musicians – all their work is gone. I think that’s going to be the greatest impact.”