Why are police back at Hidden Agenda?

Uploaded ToWhy are police back at Hidden Agenda? by Still/Loud. A show at Hidden Agenda in December 2016 (File photo). Michael Chiu
A show at Hidden Agenda in December 2016 (File photo). Michael Chiu
This isn't Hidden Agenda's first run-in with the law.

On March 7, Canadian band Braids was about to take the stage at Hong Kong underground music venue Hidden Agenda, when it was raided by officers from a trio of departments – hygiene, land and police. They demanded that the Kwun Tong industrial unit cease operating as a performance venue.

Hidden Agenda is no stranger to government action – it was forced out of each of its previous three venues after similar legal warnings. Its newest venue opened its doors in December, and had the honour of being raided for the first time last week.

In the aftermath, supporters and critics alike flooded its Facebook page, asking why it has been constantly targeted, and suggesting operational alternatives. Founder Hui Chung-wo has responded, extensively. The following is a summary of what we know.

What happened on March 7?

A Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) official posed as a concert-goer and bought a ticket to the Braids show from Hidden Agenda. The venue was raided shortly thereafter.

The ticket served as evidence that Hidden Agenda offered paid entertainment without having obtained a place for public entertainment (for places other than cinemas and theatres) (“PPE”) licence from the FEHD.

While the show was allowed to go on, the venue received a warning from the FEHD, which suggests further enforcement action in the future.

Hidden Agenda is nominally a food factory. Vic Shing, Music Surveillance

It doesn’t have a licence? Hasn’t Hui learnt any lessons from his previous attempts?

It does have a licence — but perhaps not the right one.

Hidden Agenda used to operate without an FEHD licence, but after being forced out of three venues, Hui says he wants to operate it legally. Before the launch of the newest venue in December, he obtained an FEHD food factory licence.

Hidden Agenda now nominally operates as a food factory with a small takeaway shop – featuring concerts as a side attraction. But it still solicits entrance fees, which is a legal grey area. Hui says he consulted various government departments, arts agencies and legislators before deciding on this arrangement.

So why can’t it obtain a place of public entertainment licence?

Because of the venue’s land lease conditions. As a unit in an industrial building, it likely cannot be used for anything other than industrial and storage purposes. Hui says that he has tried applying for a licence with the FEHD, without success. He tried again three days after the raid.

Hui has also pointed out that most of the 135 establishments in Hong Kong who currently possess a place of public entertainment (for places other than cinemas and theatres) licence are gaming arcades. There is no precedent of such a licence having been granted to an establishment in an industrial building.

At its previous venues, Hidden Agenda had received multiple warnings from the Lands Department for violating the very same land lease conditions.

If the FEHD, Lands Dept and police arrive to shut the venue and arrest people, our brothers will carry on defending [Hidden Agenda], until they cut our electricity.

Founder Hui Chung-wo

What about other types of licences?

People have proposed that Hidden Agenda operate as a private club, obtaining a club liquor licence, but Hui says that this would again lead to the same violations.

So it all comes down to the industrial nature of the building?

Yes. The Lands Department defines an “industrial” venue as “any premises or place, in which articles are manufactured, altered, cleansed, repaired, ornamented, finished, adapted for sale, broken up or demolished or in which materials are transformed.”

This definition was adopted from the Factories and Industrial Undertakings Ordinance, first enacted in 1955. It is easy to see why critics have called these regulations outdated.

Can Hidden Agenda apply to modify its lease from industrial to commercial use?

That’s not for Hidden Agenda to decide. That’s a decision that can only be made collectively by the owners of all the units across the building’s 14 floors. They would then have to submit an application to the Lands Department, which might not be accepted.

In fact, the government has already been promoting the transformation of industrial buildings for almost a decade. In 2009, it began the Revitalisation of Industrial Buildings Initiative, allowing owners of industrial buildings to convert them for commercial use without paying land premiums. Three years later, it set up the Energising Kowloon East Office, tasked with beautifying the gloomy post-industrial landscape and turning Kwun Tong into a new central business district.

The main result of commercialisation is that rent has risen exponentially, often forcing arts and culture establishments out.

Has it tried commercial buildings, then?

Hidden Agenda is now paying HK$62,000 in rent per month for 3,800 square feet – space that would not be available in a commercial building. Hui says that The Wave, a nearby building recently converted for commercial use, charges HK$200,000 to HK$250,000. Its neighbours in a commercial building would also include offices, restaurants and other establishments that would likely lodge noise complaints.

A lifetime waiver from licensing requirements would cost several million Hong Kong dollars. Karen Cheung, Still / Loud

More importantly, Kwun Tong’s industrial buildings have been the cradle of Hong Kong’s creative scene over the past two decades. Hidden Agenda cannot simply be transplanted into a shopping mall or an office tower in another corner of Hong Kong, and be expected to thrive organically in the same way.

That said, some smaller music venues — such as Focal Fair and the recently-opened MOM Livehouse — are trying to survive in commercial buildings.

Can it apply to waive licensing requirements?

According to Hui, a lifetime waiver would cost several million Hong Kong dollars.

So, is Hidden Agenda being specifically targeted by the government?

Hui says that is the case. Police and officials often turn a blind eye to the myriad restaurants, entertainment facilities and arts workshops that similarly violate land regulations in industrial buildings. Yet Hidden Agenda was regularly raided at its previous venues, and Hui claims he has seen the FEHD official who posed as a concert-goer three times.

He also cited the case of the former June 4th Museum in Tsim Sha Tsui as an example of how land and licensing regulations could be enforced for political purposes. The museum, which commemorates the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, closed its doors in 2016 as the building in which it was located could only be used for office purposes.

On the other hand, Hui says he has been invited on several occasions by Ma Fung-kwok – the pro-Beijing legislator representing the arts and culture constituency – to attend talks on a government performance venue partnership scheme. Does this imply that Hidden Agenda has been recognised as a legal venue? Hui has only expressed confusion.

What will happen next?

Hui is defiant, and Hidden Agenda will continue to hold concerts. “Until they cut our electricity,” says Hui.

He added that he will discuss the Hidden Agenda controversy in a meeting with legislator Ma and the Lands Department in mid-March.

Still / Loud’s Vivian Yeung contributed reporting. 

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