Travel report: Clockenflap Festival, Hong Kong

We report back on the travel experience of Hong Kong's Clockenflap festival, its premier music event that holds a mirror up to the idiosyncratic city itself.

Feature by Finbarr Bermingham | 04 Dec 2015

As the last bars of New Order rang out across the harbour, the cider-sozzled mind chased a metaphor which, after three days of revelry – no matter how comparably civilised – was only ever going to come half-baked. Surely this band, with its human heart and synthetic soul, was emblematic of this most preposterous of cities and by default, the festival which represents the city in microcosm?

From any point within the festival grounds, the horizon is dominated by buildings. Hong Kong is the world’s most vertical city, with 308 skyscrapers compared to New York’s 238 and 148 in Dubai. And these goliaths are bolstered by 8,000 high rises, placing first time viewers at simultaneous risk of whiplash and vertigo. The planners built upwards for a reason: across 263 islands, Hong Kong is strewn across rocky, mountainous terrain. Hong Kong Island itself is a small crag in the South China Sea with a population equal to the metropolitan swells of Milan or San Antonio.

The sum of all the parts is a manmade wonder carved into, out of and on top of piles and piles of rocks and, as such, provides a magnificent backdrop to Clockenflap, the city’s premier music and arts festival. The panoramic scene from the main stage is, throughout an excellent weekend, as much distraction as accompaniment. All around are bleary-eyed, romantic fools, necks creaked in search of witless analogies of their own – not to mention the perfect selfie. This is an inspiring place, but it is, after all, Asia.

"You probably won’t have an outer body experience (although there is ketamine epidemic in these parts, we understand), but you definitely won’t get stabbed. Rough with the smooth"

The bods at the tourist board like to nebulously call Hong Kong “Asia’s world city”. Attending a festival here can make one appreciate what that actually means. The week before Clockenflap was spent in Beijing, the home of whatever Communism amounts to in 2016, which paradoxically moonlights as the most mercenary place on earth. There is the real rat race, where every subway ride is a scene from Death Race – all prematurely slamming doors, flailing elbows and guttural hocks. Ironically Hong Kong, perhaps the most cutthroat capitalist place on Earth, is soothing in comparison.

Most of Asia’s main cities are tough to navigate – often joyously so. Below the smog and perpetual traffic jams of Jakarta, is buried a network of brilliant bars and clubs unlisted in any rough guides, but impossible to find without the aid of a long-term resident. Tokyo too – for all its blaring lights and tourist traps – can only truly be experienced with the assistance of someone who knows where to avoid. But Hong Kong is easy: everything – street signs, menus, announcements – is in English and most people can speak it too. The transport infrastructure is among the world’s finest and cheaper than anything you’re used to in the west. You can find whatever food you like, usually within a block or two.

Here’s the flipside: unless you venture into the depths of Kowloon, Hong Kong is far from a typical Asian experience. You could, in parts of Central, feasibly go a week without hearing a word of Cantonese or encountering authentic local food. The city was built by the British as a commercial hub and that’s their legacy. Everything is designed for efficiency and smooth-running, Clockenflap too. It will not provide you with a true Asian festival experience (whatever that might be): for that, try China, Korea or Japan. But in a city built for amenity, Clockenflap is the ultimate carnival of convenience. Everything works like clockwork, is easily navigable and well-stocked. Food and drinks are good and given the general expense of Hong Kong generally, not unfairly priced. People are friendly, and there’s a fair bit of hedonism in the wee hours, without detracting from the overall atmosphere of politeness.

Welcome to Kowloon: Clockenflap's location and lineup

The festival is located on the western tip of Kowloon – the part of Hong Kong adjoined to China, bordering Shenzhen – and nestled among the docks. Apart from a few parks and walkways, it’s ostensibly a wasteland throughout the year (a patch of unbuilt land in Hong Kong could be a tourist attraction in itself), so the stages mainly face out onto concrete plains, punctuated by the odd tuft of grass for those who arrive sans blanket.

It’s a stone’s throw from Tsim Sha Tsui and an amble from Mong Kok – according to some measures, the most densely populated district on earth. But while protestors spent last autumn blocking the roads to set up pro-democracy Occupy camps, the festival provides no camping facilities of its own. Hiring accommodation can be expensive – as can everything in Hong Kong. There are plenty of hostels near the venue, but expect something basic and pricy. International hotels are present in abundance, but if you’re savvy, you’re more likely to pick up a good deal on AirBnB. Regardless of where you’re staying, though, Clockenflap is cheap and easy to reach.

Festivals without camping always require a bit of give and take: you don’t get the squalor, and the toilets are generally clean. Conversely, you’re unlikely to make lifelong friends with booze bedraggled swamp things, or come away with tales of campfire hedonism or pseudo mysticism. You probably won’t have an outer body experience (although there is ketamine epidemic in these parts, we understand), but you definitely won’t get stabbed. Rough with the smooth.

Clockenflap has grown in stature and this year arguably represents the most strength in depth the lineup has ever had. The main headliners were picked from the ever-swelling roster of reunion bands roaming the earth on some gerontologically-powered carousel, with Ride, the Libertines, New Order, and Nile Rodgers and Chic all assuming heavyweight slots on the bill. But there was plenty of diversity and traversing the familiar and unfamiliar acts around the compact grounds made for a fine weekend.

Earlier this year, Belle and Sebastian played a sparsely attended gig near Hong Kong airport. Tickets cost north of £60, with the journey out there setting you back a tenner to boot. There is some fine work being done by indie promoters, but even so, for those that happen to be in the area, either living in Hong Kong or travelling in Southeast Asia, a weekend at Clockenflap represents excellent value in comparison. Among the big names were collective newbs and miscellany such as A$AP Rocky, SOAK, Sleep Party People, Flying Lotus, Swervedriver Saul Williams, Neon Indian, Sun Kil Moon, UNKLE, Klasmos and Battles. A quality weekend of music, all without breaking a sweat.

Top three musical highlights

  1. Mercury Rev

The new record was brought to life on a headline slot on the tiny amphitheatre of the Acuvue set. Critique of The Light In You centred on is sense of pastiche or over-earnestness. To see them perform the songs in the flesh is to have it turned on its head: after all these years, here is a band still fully in love with their own music and playing it. A set heavy on tracks from Deserter’s Songs pleased fans, with the ever-beautiful Holes and Opus 40 bringing tears to the glassiest of eyes.

  1. Shogu Tokumaru

The Japanese wunderkind plays 100 instruments and while he stopped sort of a century on stage here, his set was nonetheless brilliantly kaleidoscopic. Much like his literary compatriot Haruki Murakami, Shogu’s art draws heavily from the Beatles’ most psychedelic sounds – there’s a real (blurred) edge of surrealism to his pop sensibilities, the highlight of which was a bizarrely discordant cover of the Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star.

  1. Heyo, Doughboy and Homies

For a genre that is so obviously lyrical, there are untold pleasures to be drawn from watching hip hop performed in a tongue you don’t understand. Celebrated Cantonese MC Doughboy teamed up with a couple of other Hong Kong-based lyricists for a high octane show on Sunday afternoon. Bouncy, cartoony and sometimes furious, a small crowd was treated to a virtuoso set of rhymes and heavy beats. No idea what they were shouting about, mind you…