How Gloomy Island brought us the Hong Kong blues

Gloomy Island Blues Festival
Kaitlin Chan (illustration) and Michael CW Chiu (photography), Still / Loud.
Moody waters.

In Hong Kong, it’s easy to walk past the blues without really noticing its existence. At HMV’s Causeway Bay flagship store, the blues section comprises of just over a dozen vinyl records, stuffed next to jazz and world music. On a jazz night in a Central lounge, bands begin a 12-bar-blues jam when they run out of ideas after playing five or six numbers.

For local saxophonist Andrew Wong, most audiences either do not have a strong impression of the blues, or view it as a bourgeois musical genre far removed from daily life.

“It’s as if it’s something that belongs at City Hall, where you have to pay several hundred dollars for a ticket,” he says. “Blues equals jazz equals middle class, and you listen to it while drinking a bottle of wine.”

The truth is, blues was the sound of African American poverty in the post-Civil War Deep South—the human voice of struggling sharecropper communities.

Gloomy Island Blues Festival
Andrew Wong. Kaitlin Chan (illustration) and Michael CW Chiu (photography), Still / Loud.

“Blues is different from other musical traditions because its lyrics are about life,” Andrew explains. “A piece of classical music might be called Sonata No. 5. A jazz standard has a name… But blues begins with the lyrics.”

“It’s full of dark humour or sarcasm,” adds guitarist Tomii Chan. “For example, Robert Johnson has a song called ‘Kind-hearted Woman Blues’. It goes: ‘I’ve got a kind-hearted woman, she would do anything for me.’ It seems very sweet.”

“But the last line is: ‘You wells to kill me, as to have it on your mind.’ So if she wants to kill me, then she can go ahead and do it. Like what the fuck?”

As African Americans migrated north during the early 20th century, a more electrified Chicago Blues style became the mainstream, influencing later rock and roll artists. The music found its way to Hong Kong, but for one reason or another, never became as popular as other imported genres.

“I mean, Elvis and The Beatles are instantly recognisable names in Hong Kong… But it was rare that anyone would try to find out what Elvis was listening to,” Tomii says.

Today, the local blues scene remains small. For several years, 48th Street Chicago Blues in Tsim Sha Tsui served as its main hangout, but the bar closed down in 2005. Like other underfunded artists, blues musicians rent out units in industrial buildings.

I feel blues music would give people a different angle to this depressive environment.

Tomii’s own journey into blues music began when he was still in high school, years before he formed indie group Stranded Whale. By chance, Tomii had met veteran 阿齊—also known as Bluesman—and joined him at a jam session at The Wanch.

Andrew also began playing the blues as a matter of luck. After a hiatus from music, he met fellow veteran Ram Cheung, who was looking to start a blues group that would incorporate rich brass arrangements. The result was a six-piece band: Shake That Thing.

Andrew and Tomii are now setting up The Gloomy Island Blues Festival, which consists of two instrumental workshops, two movie screenings and four concerts spanning from August to October. The concerts, in particular, have been carefully curated so as to align the musician with the venue, with an eye to mapping out the different blues traditions that exist across history and geography.

The fishing village of Tai O will host the acoustic sets of Jabin Law, Yank Wong and Bill Loh. “Someone told us the whole thing has a very Mississippi Delta Blues feel,” muses Tomii. “It’s on wetland, among rough wooden cottages.”

Gloomy Island Blues Festival
Tomii Chan. Kaitlin Chan (illustration) and Michael CW Chiu (photography), Still / Loud.

The industrial setting of a Kwai Hing brewery will host a loud urban electric blues set, while harmonica master Henry Chung will play at North Point’s Brew Note coffee shop.

Finally, the Philippines’ Ian Lofamia Band and Taiwan’s Muddy Basin Ramblers will fly in for the headline show at MOM Livehouse. The latter is a rare jug band, an ensemble employing early 20th-century homemade instruments such as washboards and a single-string washtub bass.

“We deliberately didn’t choose any large traditional venues to hold these shows,” adds Andrew. “I don’t want their first impression of it to be something very middle-class.”

For Andrew and Tomii, blues has been a missing piece of the puzzle in the city’s music scene. But even more importantly, they see the festival as a channel for performers and participants alike to express their disillusionment with life in Hong Kong.

“Honestly, if you’ve never experienced any setbacks in life, then you might not feel [the blues],” Andrew says. “You look at how blues singers expressed their daily struggles through music. I feel blues music would give people a different angle to this depressive environment.”

For Tomii, the life of 1920s singer and guitarist Willie Johnson comes to mind.

“[Willie Johnson] was blind. His house was burned down. We didn’t share his experiences, but we are moved by his sounds… His [slide guitar] is like singing with an instrument, an infinitely sustained note.”

The next event at The Gloomy Island Blues Festival will be a screening of The Blues Brothers on September 1. It will be followed by workshops and concerts through to October. Editing by Still / Loud’s Holmes Chan.