Once upon a time, Hong Kong’s music lovers would await with bated breath for a certain local magazine to hit the stands. Every two weeks, for $12, they would be treated to 20-or-so pages of reviews and in-depth features on bands and movements—local and overseas, obscure and mainstream.
There would be, say, album reviews of the latest by Edith Frost and Portishead; a special feature on the legacy left behind by UK’s post-punk bands; an ad for a show featuring a band called “Midnight Flight”—“consisting of three Hong Kong permanent residents who hold British National Overseas passports”.
This is Music Colony Bi-weekly MCB, a local publication that ran from 1994-2004, founded by music veteran Yuen Chi-chung when he was only in his early twenties.
Sold in newspaper stands all over Hong Kong — not just record stores or bookshops, as is the case with such publications today — it was possible for one to walk by a stand in Mong Kok and see Garbage on the cover page of the magazine next to, say, a newspaper bearing the face of then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.
Now, like Tung — MCB’s time has expired. But Yuen’s influence has outlived the publication he created, as he adapts to a music culture vastly different from the one permeating Hong Kong during his times.
Yuen, now in his forties, is still a ubiquitous presence at local shows—be it young, hip gigs at Hidden Agenda, or those attended by mostly older music fans, like the recent Tangerine Dream concert at Baptist University’s AC Hall. You won’t miss him: he’s the guy decked in his trademark top hat and sleeveless tank, often snapping away near the stage.
When Yuen speaks of enthusiastic Depeche Mode fans breaking the chairs at AC Hall — once a mecca of rock n’ roll, hosting mid-sized performances before they banned such shows in the late 1980s in response to the rowdiness — there is a slight spark of playfulness and nostalgia in his eyes. Concerts were different then — and so was the approach to music purchase.
“When we bought records back in the day, all you have in mind about the record depends on your own imagination,” Yuen said. “You then spend a hundred dollars to buy it, and it will be your first time hearing the tracks. This whole process is really an adventure.”
This daring spirit — both in music and in writing — was perhaps what cemented MCB’s defining role in shaping local youngster’s music tastes. My Little Airport’s Ah P has professed to reading MCB whilst growing up, crediting the magazine with introducing him to krautrock, shoegaze and dark wave. And so has LMF/Hardpack’s drummer Kevin 仔 Kevinboy, who used to study in Australia and would get his family to mail him copies of MCB from Hong Kong.
The benefit of being able to sell record companies a “cover story” was what scored Yuen interviews and meetings with alternative stars including David Bowie, Foo Fighters, and almost Radiohead: Yuen had to stay to work on the magazine, and asked radio DJ Wong Chi-chung to fly over to attend the concert in his place.
But online media today, without this cover story allure, and facing the increasing lack of resources for non-mainstream music, would be at best invited overseas to see perhaps Taylor Swift, rather than Radiohead. “Or it’d be a flight to Korea for a K-pop concert, or an invitation to watch Justin Bieber,” Yuen laments.
Hong Kong’s mainstream media was also a lot open-minded towards sub-cultures, Yuen remembers. “When Depeche Mode came, they went on [TVB music programme] 勁歌金曲 Jade Solid Gold, and were interviewed by Ken Choi Fung-wah. Siouxsie and the Banshees also went on [variety show] 歡樂今宵 Enjoy Yourself Tonight, interviewed by Lydia Shum Din-ha 肥姐.”
It has been a busy month for Hong Kong, with fireworks and protests marking the 20th anniversary of the handover. As for Yuen, he had intended to write about a throwback to the city’s indie scene in 1997, but realised there was a lack of material for such a cause.
“Maybe the bands put on shows, but there weren’t a lot who left behind works and released albums—there was only Beyond and Anthony Wong Yiu-ming.” Most people listened to the 四大天王 Four Heavenly Kings and Andy Hui Chi-on, Yuen said.
On the cover of MCB’s September 1997 issue was Anodize, a band later dubbed “one of the most prominent rock band since local legends Beyond”. Yet, Yuen calls the indie scene back then generally “boring,” with few bands around at all.
The reason for this was that indie productions at that stage still required going into the studio, he said, and there was no do-it-yourself with one’s computer yet. High production costs and a lack of independent music producers also deterred the scene from flourishing. “It was not until 2000, with bands like Pancakes, that people recorded and released music on their own.”
Another notable difference was that it was rare for the subject matter of songs to be political, unlike today when many bands incorporate their discontent towards the authorities into their work — such as CharmCharmChu’s “Fuck Off! Cops” or LMF’s “WTF”.
“At the time, the most political was 黑鳥 Black Bird. But even Black Bird would not be anti-handover; they would criticise the Communist Party and sing about June 4th, but today they may be considered “pro-China” 大中華膠. Anthony Wong Chau-sang, for example, said ‘My New Year’s wish is for China to take back America’ in a Commercial Radio Show, but it was mostly satire; it was different from the sentiments today.”
Also lacking even in mainstream music, was the “pro-harmony” 維穩 songs, such as local singer Hacken Lee’s 北京北角, which described the loving relationship between Beijing and North Point.
“1997 was not so bad to the point where such songs are needed. It’s only when there is turmoil that you need songs to promote harmony. I don’t think there were a lot of pro-China songs, and not a lot of people came out to oppose the handover — or shall we say, ’transfer of sovereignty’— at the time.”
And neither was “Music Colony Bi-weekly” political, despite what its name may suggest. It was in fact inspired by Joy Division song “Colony.”
“The name fits, because Hong Kong was a British colony, and ‘column’ in a way also sounds similar to ‘colony’. It was the music implications that led me to use the term — when I was young, at the beginning of the 1980s, these British new wave, post-punk bands were coming to Hong Kong, and I felt perhaps one factor drawing them here was that we were a British colony.”
Yuen put an end to MCB in 2004, when the record industry began going into a decline. The survival of a music publication, Yuen said, is inevitably tied to the industry, because advertising revenues make up the bulk of the income. “We couldn’t see a future with it, so we decided to end it on the 10th anniversary—no point dragging it out. This feels more complete.”
Yuen now pens music reviews and features for a variety of publication, such as City Magazine, and is also the consultant editor at HK01’s multimedia platform 扭耳仔 New Ears Music.
“But I don’t want my role to be like a guy in his forties judging today’s music. It’s more down-to-earth for people of this generation to understand and explain what’s happening.”
It’s this open-minded attitude that makes him, to this day, one of the most important music writers of our generation. Gone were the days when NME could destroy Slowdive with one simple review; now, Yuen believes that he plays the role of a guide, not a critic. Plus, writing in Chinese gives Hong Kong readers a chance to learn about music from a local perspective, Yuen says.
“What’s the point of reading it [if they already knew about the band]? They might want to look for some resonance in the article—a resonance they wouldn’t find with articles in English media.”
MCB may cease to exist, but Yuen is still here—writing and inspiring a new generation of music lovers who finds resonance in his words.
Still / Loud’s Holmes Chan and Paul Benedict Lee contributed reporting. Editing by Wilfred Chan and Arthur Tam.