Hong Kong People’s Fringe Festival

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As our arts community takes its first step in replicating the Edinburgh Fringe, Joyce Choi talks to the ambitious co-ordinator of our own Hong Kong People’s Fringe Festival


There’s a time for everything. And, for Julia Mok, this is the perfect time for Hong Kong to have its first ‘fringe festival’ – an open-access, performer-driven arts fest with no selection committee deciding what will be presented and who will perform. “We want to do something before the world ends [presumably on December 21],” laughs Mok. The ‘we’ the choreographer and musician speaks on behalf of is her Theatre Horizon co-founder, Chan Chu-hei. The duo are the two main brains behind the Hong Kong People’s Fringe Festival.

“Many new performing venues have already sprouted up all over the city,” says Mok. “So we thought it was time to set up a network among us smaller venues so that we can share organisational resources, ticketing systems and media contacts. I mean, I can lend you my stage lamp and you can place your flyers in my venue...”

While the city waits to see the sort of mega impact that West Kowloon Cultural District’s venues will have on the arts scene, recent trends have seen new performances being taken out on to Hong Kong’s streets (busking), and dance studios and theatre rehearsal rooms in industrial building units – as well as upstairs cafés, bookstores and galleries – have been turned into live performance venues. Some of these unofficial fringe venues are not only alternatives to legit facilities which are often fully booked – or too expensive or too big for smaller productions – but they also add gritty charm and candidness to experimental, edgy and arty creations.

The People’s Fringe Festival is not the first to have an open access policy. The Fringe Club in Central has long provided rent-free venues and publicity support for local artists to put on their performances or exhibitions. The new fest, however, is almost like listing yourself on Craigslist – as long as you have an idea and a performance to share during the festival period, anyone can register to be part of it. And the production can then be searchable on the festival’s homepage, with most events being mapped on its gigantic A1-size brochure.

Unlike many other arts festivals which are trying hard to impose a curatorial statement to what really is an umbrella of non-related, individual events, the HKPFF is somewhat an anarchic platform. “You register and that’s it,” says Mok. “We’re not a provider, not an organiser, not a curator. Anyone can walk in – especially since we don’t have any registration fees this time. We want to encourage more participation.”

Mok and Chan were hugely inspired by the organisational power and legacy of The Fringe – the world’s largest open-access arts fest, the Edinburgh Fringe, after their visits over the past two years. So the couple came up with the Hong Kong version of it this March. And they’ve since gathered at least 65 events including black-box theatre, mime, site-specific dance (in hair salons and bookstores), poetry recitals and improvised experimental jamming. The majority of these events are initiated by organisers that Mok and Chan have only met on Facebook or via email – and many are performing for the first time.

But simply because anyone can participate, anyone can just as easily fall out. A handful of listed events have already been cancelled before the fest begins. “Many groups, especially the younger ones, don’t really know how much they can handle,” says Mok. “Sometimes they have disagreements among themselves and then they call the event off. We don’t have a penalty system yet. We can only suggest solutions other than cancelling. But here in Hong Kong, people feel like they’ve made an effort already trying to bring a work to a festival without accepting [invitational] fees, especially given this isn’t really an official, authority-run event.”

Mok and Chan witnessed how The Fringe changed the ecosystem of the city of Edinburgh and, in particular, how government policies can foster arts and cultural development. During The Fringe, international artists are exempted working visas and a designated government theatre official works full-time to give out temporary venue licences to many of these otherwise illegal performing premises. Even a tree, a patch of grass, a telephone booth or a university campus can be licenced as a proper venue.

“These are things we – the people – can’t really do,” sighs Mok. “We hope by organising this festival, we can see what sort of reaction the Hong Kong government has, whether they’d ban us [from performing in unlicenced venues] or want this to happen. We want to see if the government can make licencing easier or at least simplify the licencing process.”

So far there’s been no reaction from the government and Mok thinks that, in itself, is a good reaction. “We’re already helping the government revitalise these industrial buildings,” she says. “We just want them to leave us alone or stop making the law more difficult.” The festival co-ordinator sounds hopeful. And perhaps this is a great time to do something different before the day of doom wreaks its havoc.

HK People’s Fringe Festival 2012 runs from Fri 23 to Dec 15 at various venues. For programme details, visit pplsfringe.com.

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