Should the government regulate busking?

July 16, 2015 17:31
Street artists perform in Mong Kok. Photo: HKEJ

Recently, noisy “street concerts” have been staged by groups of middle-aged Chinese women in a section of Sai Yeung Choi Street South in Mong Kok that is regularly closed to traffic.

It used to be a popular venue for street performers, but these troupes of singers have taken over much of the area, causing many local street artists to feel they have no choice but to leave.

Andrew So Chun-chau, a street juggler also known as Mr. Funny, is one of them.

Speaking on a program, Busking Life, produced by RTHK, So said the street is no longer an ideal place for busking.

“The place is now noisy and chaotic. It is even worse than Sheung Wan Gala Point back in the '70s,” he said angrily.

“The street is a public place, but there are people reserving spots using a roll of paper.

"How’s that? Hong Kong is a place governed by the rule of law.” 

Many other street performers stay away from Sai Yeung Choi Street South, as they don’t want their acts to be downgraded by the chaotic environment, So said.

He hopes the government could work on this and give out performing licenses, allocating time slots to street performers.

This could make things more systematic and get street performers to return, So says.

But is the idea workable?

The Hong Kong government has taken note of the experience with buskers in places overseas and designated a free outdoor area at Sha Tin Town Hall where artists can perform.

They have to apply for a spot on a first-come, first-served basis.

However, because the location attracts little foot-traffic, the scheme isn’t attractive to street performers, only nine of whom performed there in the 12 months ending in March.

Ting, a percussionist, and Relief, who plays the didgeridoo, an Aboriginal musical instrument, were street performers in Australia a few years ago.

Both were impressed by the street performing system in the country.

“I tried four times before I could pass the assessment and get the busker license," Ting said.

"I went to the interview with a couple of music talents in my school the first three times but failed.

“Later, I found some YouTube clips showing artists playing percussion using things like rubbish bins or desks.

"I thought that’s interesting, so I started hitting and striking other objects, and I passed at last.”

The authorities want the street performers to show their own characteristics, he said.

“We had to attend lectures as well," Relief said.

"They taught us the dos and don’ts of busking in Melbourne.

"For example, street performers cannot perform near a wall, as it can be dangerous for the blind.” 

Zoe, a ukulele player, and Jo, a clarinetist, are a couple who used to perform in Sai Yeung Choi Street before but have now moved to busk in other places.

“If you really want to get a good spot in that street, you have to go there really, really early,” Jo recalled.

“We did try to communicate a little bit, but we found there was no negotiation. It went something like, 'No, this is my spot, you need to move away,'” Zoe said.

However, the duo doesn’t agree about screening street performers.

“I can’t imagine going to a place like a Busking Authority and saying, 'These people sound bad. I don’t like them. You should get them off the street,'" Jo said.

"Who is going to decide this stuff anyway, a professor of music or another busker?” 

“Once you start regulating and licensing, it takes away the thing that makes busking busking, which is spontaneity and people making their own decisions,” Zoe said.

Recently, the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority rolled out guidelines on busking, clarifying gray areas to protect buskers.

For example, the guidelines say it is totally legal for buskers to receive money from their audience.

However, the authority said no audition is needed for applicants, which made So worried that the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade will be reduced to another Sai Yeung Choi Street South.

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EJ Insight writer