Taking it to the street

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These well-known buskers sing songs, play tunes, spin bowls and bang on rubbish bins for cash… or just for the hell of it. By Andrea Yu

 

 

Buskic – Acoustic singing group 

How long has Buskic been performing here?
Eddie Lin, Buskic member: We started on Valentine’s Day last year with two members. We started busking in Times Square in Causeway Bay then moved to the door of the Marathon shop in LKF. Then the group (which takes turns to play acoustic tunes but sometimes performs en masse) grew larger so we moved to a spot with more space − the MCM shop.

How many of you usually perform?

As of now, the group has more than 20 regular members – not only singers but also friends who have been with us for a while. The group has people from all walks of life – corporate bankers, IT consultants, entrepreneurs, full-time musicians and so on.

 
What’s the
biggest audience you’ve played for?
On March 31, we had the pleasure of co-hosting a memorial event for Leslie Cheung. And, on that night, at its peak, we had at least 200 people in the audience.

You must have enjoyed some wacky experiences…

In January, a group of dancers organised a ‘flash mob’ around us at midnight. There were at least 20 couples dancing together. Some came out of parties and some were just passers-by who felt inspired to join in.


How much do you make in one evening?
It ranges from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars if we’re lucky. Sometimes, the gratitude comes in the form of snacks and cigarettes from 7-Eleven – we don’t ask for them, people just go up and bring the snacks down! We even had a guy working at a Japanese restaurant who brought us packs of sushi. These donations are heartfelt and sometimes it’s better than money.

Buskic performs at D’Aguilar St and Queens Rd Central, Central outside MCM on Fridays and Saturdays from 10pm to sunrise. If you’d like to join in, just drop by their usual spot and ask the organisers if you can have a go. Follow the group at facebook.com/buskingmusic.

 

No Drums Needed – Junk percussionists
Carl Zammit, 23, and Desmond Lam, 19
                                                     
How did you come up with this idea?
Carl: It started as a university project. It was a creativity course and we had to come up with an idea which would benefit society in a creative way.

How much do you earn on a typical night out?
Desmond: In the start, we didn’t get anything. It took time for us to get used to playing with each other. Actually, my mom gave us our first $50! But nowadays we usually get a couple hundred dollars. The best we’ve gotten is $800 in two hours.
Carl: It usually depends on the weather, the time, the people… if the sun is out people tend to tip us a lot more. We’re the only band that plays in the rain. I think people think we’re a bit crazy. 
 

Have the police given you any problems?
Desmond: So far, no. One time someone called 999 and wanted us to stop playing but the police just told us to play softly.

Is this a good way to make a living?
Carl: The money’s quite good – definitely above mininum wage. It’s almost as good as teaching. But you can’t do it all day, every day. We’re getting quite blistered. It’s hard work – hard money! We’re banging on random stuff, not a proper drum kit.

Find No Drums Needed playing along Sai Yeung Choi Street on Wednesday and Friday evenings until September. Follow them at facebook.com/NoDrumsNeeded.

 



Mr Yu, 62–Chinese acrobat

How did you get started in acrobatics?
I’m from Wuhan and my family was really poor when I was growing up. When I was 15 or 16 a performing group passed by our village. I begged the master to let me be his apprentice. I’ve been performing ever since. I’ve even been on the local TV stations in Wuhan too!

Have the police ever bothered you?
There haven’t been any problems. Sometimes they just tell me to turn down the volume of my music.

Have you always been an acrobatic performer?
I used to do construction work and other odd jobs. I’m retired now.


How much can you make on an average night?
Anywhere from $500 to $1,000. But my goal isn’t to make money − it’s just to let people appreciate the art of acrobatics.

Are there many challenges to being a street performer?

My own personal safety, mainly. I’m kind of old! Also, being able to provide a performance that caters to the whole audience is a challenge. Old people and children want to see different things but I hope to attract all sorts of crowds.

Mr Yu performs a variety of acrobatic tricks nearly every evening on Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mong Kok.  

 

 
 
Ah Sing, 57 – Erhu player

How long have you been playing the erhu
for the crowds?
For half a month here in Central. Before, I played near the HKAPA for two years. I’ve been playing erhu on the streets for nearly four years.

You play in the pedestrian tunnel near Statue Square. Is it a good spot for busking?
It’s quite good actually because there are rarely other street performers to compete with. One time there were some harmonica players who tried to take my place but I just leave if that happens. It sounds terrible if two groups play here at the same time.

What songs do you usually play?
I improvise. I write most of my songs as I perform. I am best at playing Mongolian and Jiangnan-style tunes. But not all songs can be played on the street so usually I play folk-style songs and avoid longer notes because they can be heard more easily on the street. Sometimes, when I’m in the mood, I’ll improvise a lot of new songs. But because I don’t write them down, the tune just slips away.

What are some of the more memorable experiences you’ve had?
There was a Japanese tourist who requested that I play certain songs and gave me a hundred dollars for it. Another time, a prominent singer heard me playing just here on the street and asked me to accompany her for a concert in front of a department head from the central government.
 
Have you had any trouble with the police?
Yes, always. Sometimes I just leave and when they’re gone I will just come back and start playing again.
 
Why do they tell you to leave? Is it illegal?

I don’t really know… maybe they think I’m a street beggar because I suppose that’s illegal in Hong Kong.

Catch Ah Sing playing his erhu on weekday afternoons at the pedestrian tunnel between Statue Square and City Hall and on weekend evenings in Wan Chai outside the HKAPA.

 
 
 
 
Is busking legal?

Hong Kong has a long and capricious history with buskers. While officially permitted and even encouraged, street performers in reality are harassed by the police and looked down on by some memberrs of the public. As a result, those who busk do so for self-expression and performance rather than for a salary or for the prestige. 
 
Street performances are protected under Hong Kong’s fundamental freedom of expression – but there are restrictions. The buskers must not be overly obscene or disturb the public order. As a result, they can be arrested if the police judge them to be a nuisance. In 2006, Andrew ‘Mr Funny’ So became the first street performer to be prosecuted for obstructing traffic. His charges were eventually dropped but buskers continue to be hassled by the cops, often at the behest of public complaints.
 
Not that the government isn’t trying: in 2010, three streets – the piazzas of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Sha Tin Town Hall and Kwai Tsing Theatre – were specifically dedicated for street performers to use. However, permission was only extended for a year and performers had to fulfil requirements like having working rights in Hong Kong. Compare this to the planned $22billion West Kowloon Cultural District which seeks to promote Hong Kong culture and entertainment, and it’s obvious that street culture remains sorely neglected.
 
For street performers to really thrive, they need to be recognised as authentic artists. The support of Hongkongers would go a long way in convincing the government. Remember: they’re buskers, not bums. Well, that’s true of most cases. Christopher Wang

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