This Town Needs Raids: Where does Hidden Agenda Belong?

Published: May 10, 2017

Two days ago, Hong Kong police raided the DIY independent music venue Hidden Agenda during a performance by British math-rock band This Town Needs Guns.

They arrested seven, including venue owner Hui Chung Wo and the three members of the band.  The charge: the band did not possess proper work visas for a performance, in a venue that was unlicensed to host one.

Licensing is an old and familiar bugbear to the Radar, and our position on it is a contextual one.

But let’s try to unpack this situation a little bit. Everyone within the scene is torn about it, because there are 4 possible reactions one could have, and 3 of them can be construed as correct:

Reaction 1:
“They got what they deserved. No visa, no dice. The cops were just doing their job: in Hong Kong, you follow Hong Kong rules.”

 

Yes, the band did indeed not have the proper work visas. Sources tell us that the venue was aware of the stakes, and chose to continue putting on bands illegally. On the one hand, there are indeed venues in Hong Kong that are trying to do things the right way, On the other, Hong Kong real estate is insanely expensive, and licenses for more affordable spaces (a necessity for a live house) are almost impossible to get.  To add insult to injury, Hong Kong’s immigration rules are byzantine and vague about work visas for single performances.

Work visa regulation is centered, for instance, on proving that Hong Kong does not have the equivalent ‘talent’ locally, and requires proof of finances whose thresholds are often well above the paygrade of independent bands. As far as the immigration department is concerned, there is no difference between applying for a single 90-minute performance, and applying to work full-time in Hong Kong.

So while it is completely fair to condemn the band (and the venue) for not playing by the rules – maybe, just maybe – the rules weren’t (completely) fair to begin with.

Reaction 2:
“What’s with the faux outrage? They’re just a bunch of musicians who did something illegal.”

 

Yes, they did. Hidden Agenda messed up, no question. Worse still, they may have actively stoked the cops’ attention, by posting inflammatory videos of past raids and strongly worded Facebook posts.

We’ll leave the judgement of whether this is a punk attitude or unnecessary grandstanding to you. But let’s approach this from another angle.

What this raid is saying is that a small, 200-capacity music gig featuring a small international band requires riot cops and dogs to ‘quell’.

Ask if a similar reaction would occur if say, an environmental activist without a work visa was giving a ticketed talk about sustainable urban farming, or a theatre performer was participating in a special classical drama.

Our guess is that things would be much more civil.

There’s two overlapping issues here: One, Hidden Agenda’s own long potted history of confrontation with the powers that be, and Two, the unfair demonization of live music as somehow needing greater control and scrutiny over other, more sanctioned, art forms.

The outrage may not be justified in its form and ferocity, but there’s ample reason here to be concerned and to voice dissatisfaction. Hidden Agenda’s confrontational stance may have caused this situation to escalate, but could one argue that they were painted into a corner?

 

 Reaction 3:
“Great job Beijing! Keep meddling and interfering by suppressing everything in Hong Kong.”

Beijing had nothing to do with this. If anything, this situation was a uniquely Hong Kong one. The Beijing playbook on this would have looked very different – just dig through the Radar archives.

Reaction 4:
“Hidden Agenda has been so profoundly important to the scene. There must be a way for them to continue what they do.”

This is the reaction that lets us move forward.

In elevating ‘the law’ above all else, let’s not forget the singular role this venue has played in fostering a vivid, unique underground scene in Hong Kong. From King Lychee to David Boring, many musicians owe a debt to HA for taking a chance on them, giving them a stage, and creating networks with the wider world.

Governments have blind spots, and it is entirely plausible that they are neither aware of, or particularly care for, the future of a tiny underground music venue.

But remember that music is a funnel. If you want the next Coldplays and Blurs (two bands that recently did Hong Kong dates), you’re going to need to start at the bottom. Scenes are born in places like Hidden Agenda, not at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

It can be argued that there is a “right way” to approach issues like this (which Hidden Agenda refused), but complex cities demand diversity of tactics. If you want a creative, dynamic city that produces ideas and, and is a compelling place to live, you want to encourage places like Hidden Agenda (despite how much you disagree with them), not violently shut them down.

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