Urban Diary
未來故事 永續香港|Sustainable Future, Hong Kong Tales

Ken CHOW: Music in Precarious Balance

Ken CHOW is a member of the music band “The Flame”. Ken describes himself as a long-term user of public spaces; every weekend, he carries an amplifier and guitar to perform in Times Square. As a university student in Liverpool, Ken was exposed to street music. In oversea countries, people enjoy music and pay for the artists’ hard work. Ken was fascinated by the interaction between artists and audience, as well as street performance as a profession.

Ken met Johnathan Walker in the UK, a full-time street performer who travels all across the country with his guitar. As Ken explains, “I thought Johnathan had a full-time job. But in fact he performed eight hours a day, four to five times a week. He even hires an accountant to process his earnings from street performances.” Johnathan’s lifestyle came as a surprise to Ken.

One of the challenges of street performance is the audience’s immediate response. Unlike a concert, the audience could leave whenever they want. In order to prepare for his performance, Ken spent a year to rehearse his 45-minute rundown. His first performance, which lasted 90 minutes, earned him £25 pounds, which was the equivalent of a day’s work at fast food chains. As he became more and more adept, he earned more applauses and income, which supported his life in the UK.

Ken once visited Birmingham and prepared to perform outside the public space of a shopping arcade. At first, a staff invited him to leave because an event was scheduled. The staff led him to the City Council Offices, where they recommended him to another venue. This taught Ken how the local people and policy respected street performers.

In June 2012, Ken returned to Hong Kong in search for public spaces to perform. After Ken moved to avoid the rain in the covered area of Times Square for a few times, the area became his permanent stage. As Ken explains, the covered area is a public area managed by a private entity, “As the private owner, Times Square has a duty to manage what happens here; but as a public space user, we are entitled to this space.”

In his early days back to Hong Kong, the public and law enforcers were not familiar with the concept of street performance. While most enforcers are more polite nowadays, the Hong Kong government has yet to pass any specific laws on street performances. This is why Ken and his fellow performers may still be charged with begging. As Ken explains passionately, “A good street performance improves the people’s quality of life. The audience pay us for our performance, this is entirely different from begging”.

The use of public space is all about respect. Once, Ken was performing in another area, when a kaifong asked him to stop because the music disturbed his sleep. Ken gladly agreed to leave. Such communication facilitates the use of public space.

In a weekend on December 2016, Ken and his band member Kit performed in Times Square. There was nothing more satisfying to a musician than the clash and combination of notes. Despite the presence of security guards, police, and anonymous complaints, the night featured a lively audience who sang along. In spite of the clash of private and public spaces, a precarious balance of street music is struck.