After a twenty-hour journey we are sitting in a hotel room, totally zonked, sipping peppermint tea. Now is our time to rest, as tomorrow, we’ve been told, will be a very long day.
CHINESE NEW YEAR. And here we are, at the epicentre of it all, about to partake in our biggest event to date – big in every way. Usually we are five drummers (or sometimes seven) and one director. This time we are nine drummers; a ten-strong team, preparing to parade through a crowd of thousands, to a TV audience of hundreds of millions. That thought alone makes the whole trip seem rather surreal before we’ve even started. Tomorrow, our dress rehearsal, will be filled with dragons and lions and giant puppets made of light. Suddenly our own costumes don’t seem so outrageous.
On our way from the airport to our hotel in Kowloon we passed through parts of the Islands District – one island, Chek Lap Kok, a platform for the airport itself; another for Disneyland; and others residential, packed with green hills and skyscrapers in equal measure. Hong Kong International Airport, where we landed, was built in the 1990s largely on reclaimed land from the sea. The whole process, which involved splitting the land into four parts before beginning the build, we are told by our local host, took a mere six years. A similar amount of time will be taken to build the brand new bridge to Macau, covering a whopping forty-two kilometres across the ocean. Hong Kong may have a long British history, but its new developments are carried out with true Chinese efficiency.
After a much-needed nap and shower at the hotel, we wander through the Kowloon streets of tall residential blocks, neon lights and noodle bars, in an attempt to find some light vegetarian food (which we’re desperate for after hours of carb-heavy flight food). At last, wading through menus of tripe, ‘edible frog’ and other parts of mystery animals, we feast on broccoli, green beans and boiled rice, perfectly done.
We stop by a supermarket for snacks on our way back and find a haunting amount of Tesco products dominating the shelves. Next door is a local tat shop full of red and gold decorations for New Year celebrations. Just like Christmas in the UK, this festive time of year is inescapable. (On a side note, ‘tat’ is now a word we expect to appear in the Hongkongese vocabulary, after sharing it with our chirpy host, who then used in it every possible sentence.)
We’ve returned to Hong Kong a year on from our bizarre adventures in nearby Macau, this time for a full week, for the most important event in the Chinese calendar. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring.
Performers are GO!
Never before have we played a gig among so many other performers, and what an impact it has had. Every moment, before, during and after each performance, was shared with an enthusiastic mass of equally crazy, happy people with the same understanding of what it was to play there.
Stilt-walkers, drummers, cheerleaders, dancers and circus entertainers, from every corner of the globe, filled the space in their glorious, colourful and flamboyant costumes; and the atmosphere backstage was a constant buzz of manic excitement. One day at the hotel we even got a cheerleader show just for fellow performers and various people from the press. I’ve never seen so many photographers in my life, or so many perfectly toned, tanned bums and thighs. Our boys (and girls) were particularly ecstatic to see such an event, obviously for the quality of the performance itself and nothing more… But I digress.
On the day of the Chinese New Year Parade through the main streets of Kowloon, a brief backstage rehearsal became the temporary playground of drummers and dancers, as the performers from Lux, an Irish circus company, joined us for a groove-driven dance party. Our rehearsal was nothing short of shambolic, but the dancing and raving and grooving and shouting, all lit up by the lights in our drums, made for ludicrous fun and got us all in the mood for a high-energy performance in front of… well, millions of people.
At the dress rehearsal, the previous day, we learned what it was to be ogled by fellow performers. Whilst queueing up in line for the parade backstage we were, like every group to play there, cheered on by crowds of costumed people, young and old, dressed as everything from monkeys (this year’s animal) to cartons of milk. A massive group of Hello Kitty dancing girls made a huge fuss over us, waving and giggling in a sea of pink fluffy dresses and candy-coloured wigs. Then, for the sake of a routine pre-show test, the lights in our drums and costumes came on, and suddenly the crowd of performers went wild, led by the Hello Kitty team in one swooping ‘oooooohhhhh!’ But before the noise had died down there came a sudden visual response from the girls who, all at once, held up neon Hello Kitty bow-ties in the air which all simultaneously lit up, and, pointing them directly at us, squealed and giggled with joy. This time, largely led by our group, the crowd erupted once more into an even greater ‘OOOOOOOOHHHHHH!’ We hadn’t even been on stage yet. That surreal moment of child-like joy, like something out of a Manga comic or a moment in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, is one I will never forget.
Gigs, Gigs, Gigs
Though the rehearsal day was somewhat tough, the following day’s parade made all the effort worthwhile. The TV performance lasted about three minutes all in all, but they were among the most exciting minutes of my life, as we entered the arena between masses of other acts with our new larger-than-life routine, marching into view of the crowds in the stands, and weaving in and out of light puppets and Chinese dragons. Once done, we had a few seconds rest before storming through the next zone, for more people, and then continued onto the wide streets of Kowloon, which had been completely cordoned off for the event – a two-hour parade attended by thousands. To get a sense of the scale, these roads are basically the size of dual carriageways, and typically encounter thousands of keen shoppers and fast cars zooming down them on a daily basis. Barriers marked off the pavements full of spectators, while the roads were completely clear for us to roam. Imagine if this were to happen on a similar thoroughfare like Oxford Street in London – the city would surely come to a standstill.
Our work over the following days consisted of daytime shows at the Well Wishing Festival in Tai Po in the New Territories, in front of one of the loveliest crowds I’ve ever encountered. Never before have we been treated like such royalty – the only difference being that actual royalty probably wouldn’t have attempted to high-five every member of the crowd in a down-the-line style manoeuvre on their exit from the stage.
The Well Wishing Festival itself was a wonderful occasion of merriment. As well as the afternoon of entertainment from drummers, dancers, circus acts and the like, the grounds were largely occupied by a market selling everything for a Chinese celebration, from fancy incense to burn at the neighbouring temple, to dancing dragon puppets, and of course, plenty of food. Perhaps the most stunning sight was the Wishing Tree itself, which people throw wishes attached to oranges into, to bring them good fortune in the New Year. Though the oranges thrown were once real ones, it turns out they now celebrate the occasion with fake plastic ones, as previous trees had been killed by the masses of strange fruit landing among their branches. Anything to make a good anecdote, eh?
Being Tourists for a Moment or Two
Despite a jam-packed schedule of gigs, we did get a few chances to explore Hong Kong, including a wonderfully extravagant New Year’s fireworks show from Victoria Harbour and a perfect private tour provided by our host on the final day. On New Year’s Eve, we were encouraged to visit Victoria Park in Causeway Bay for the festivities. This turned out not to be a celebratory event as such, but more like an all-night tat market where crowds of young people flocked in their thousands, buying sweet snacks and cheap trinkets that were for the most part neither useful nor attractive, until 6 am. It was, however, a beneficial business venture for students of the local schools and colleges, who produced their own products (mostly cushions in the shape of monkeys, hamburgers, Pikachus and just about anything else) to then sell from market stalls in the most creative and impassioned ways imaginable. Shopping rather than drinking, it seems, is the Hongkongese way to celebrate.
On the evening after our final gig, we took the MTR (Hong Kong underground train network) to Mong Kok where, just two nights previous, there had been politically-motivated riots, and every taxi had refused to go near the place for the following days. This was hard to believe when we stepped onto the street from the subway station, laying our eyes on a vast array of neon lights and swarming crowds of activity. This was the night of the ‘Ladies Market’ which, contrary to our expectations, was a market selling items with the typical ‘lady’ in mind; all the obvious things were there: socks, purses, fancy-dress coats for dogs, jewellery and so on… It was a fascinating scene of busy vendors, noisy buskers and excitable shoppers, even if there was nothing much to buy. We stopped at a delicious Korean restaurant for food and then wandered through more night markets, striking our best bargains with reluctant vendors for items such as giant Chinese fans and teapots.
The final day was a genuine treat: an extra tourist day tagged on the end of our trip in order to learn a little more of our surroundings. First we travelled to the North of Hong Kong Island, all the way uphill to The Peak, which overlooks the metropolis below in all its skyscraping glory. What a strange feeling, to be above those buildings which dwarf everything beneath them; and what a striking contrast between the mountains and the city, which sit in one place so neatly together.
After taking in the sublime views, we were taken to the enchanting Stanley Market – a significant place for many of us, given we visited this exact spot one year earlier on our one-day adventure across the water from Macau. If you’re buying gifts, or if you’re just after charming mementos of a memorable trip, this is the place to go. This jaunt was followed by a tasty Dim Sum lunch at the Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Aberdeen Harbour – an uncannily large boat housing a traditional-style restaurant; and then a tour around the harbour in a fishing boat. With driver and our brilliant tour-guide host on board, we took in stunning views of boats, sea and surrounding hills and skyscrapers, learning about the once sought-after job of fishermen – a professional community rapidly decreasing in size now that fishing is largely preferred as a hobby among younger generations.
Our last day was topped off with a peaceful (and by this point somewhat dazed) wander around the Chi Lin Nunnery, a Buddhist temple in Diamond Hill, Kowloon, viewable from the window of our hotel rooms, and an area of sweet tranquillity right in the middle of a busy metropolis. Hong Kong, though often thought of as a huge bustling city with an impossibly large population and buildings towering over you wherever you go, actually hosts one of the most varied landscapes I’ve ever come across, making it easy to find moments of peace and areas of open, unspoiled space. Roaming through the mountains, one can look down upon beautiful sandy beaches and hidden coves, forests, sky and ocean, or upon one of the leading financial districts of the world. As a visitor, it comes across as remarkably friendly, polite, clean, and relatively easy to get around, and as a resident I imagine it must be impossible to get bored; you’d have to live there a whole century before seeing it all. Here’s hoping they need us for the next century of New Year’s parties – I’d be more than willing to join.