The December 31, 2017 gig in the depths of a Hong Kong factory space had all the necessary ingredients for a good party: thundering music, too much booze, dancing anarchists and David Boring monotonously declaring after a particularly nihilistic set: “Happy new year.”
The only person missing was Leung Wing Lai.
He should have been at that party—after all, the industrial building flat was his home. It was there that he and his flatmates frequently hosted film screenings, casual gatherings and gigs, a secret location away from the government’s prying eyes amidst increasing crackdowns on music venues.
Instead, he was in a remote cell in southern Lantau, serving a thirteen-month sentence for protesting development plans that would demolish villages in the northeast New Territories.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Leung Wing Lai found himself behind bars; after all, those who know him only from the news have long marked him as a post-80s social activist, anarchist, delinquent. But to the music scene, he is Ah Lai of the legendary underground band An Id Signal 意色樓—providing tortured, dissonant vocals wrapped in torrential guitar riffs and a relentless rhythm section.
An Id Signal was a by-product of the Kwun Tong factory scene in the 2000s, when wayward kids too broke to loiter at bars would hang out at each other’s band rooms in industrial buildings. Ah Lai was one of them, and like many others, he ended up moving himself into these units, drawn by the cheap rents, airy spaces, and persistently pulsating music. Hidden Agenda, the city’s best-known underground music venue, was born in his backyard.
When he was sentenced to jail in August 2017, the news sent ripples through the indie circle: even those who didn’t agree with his politics wrote tributes on social media about how much they respected him and the band. Ah Lai’s first public message from prison was to apologise to those who had invited An Id Signal to perform. He had been locked up and wouldn’t be able to make it, he explained.
He would end up serving 176 days before being released on bail awaiting appeal.
Two months later at his factory residence, Lai would recall to us that in jail, he was more recognised as a member of the band scene rather than a social activist. The other prisoners had vague impressions of the “pro-democracy camp” and often lumped him together with “yellow ribbons” or even the Democratic Party, but they were impressed with his relative fame in indie music.
“I never thought that my affiliation with An Id Signal would end up ‘protecting’ me in there,” he mused.
Other inmates would ask him to play, but Ah Lai only tuned the guitar and left the music to others. “I really enjoyed being the listener… this is really how blues music began; they’re unhappy and they’re letting it out.”
Soon after he emerged, he and other activists who were incarcerated held a press conference on prison conditions, where he urged authorities to improve music facilities in the band room.
At his desk, Ah Lai pens letters to prisoners he befriended at Tong Fuk Correctional Institution, an activity he makes time for every week. He describes prison as a fenced social community akin to the United Nations, where you could find people of all nationalities. Lai was among the last of his fellow protesters to apply for bail, in part due to these friendships.
“The friends I made in there—we’d always say, we’ll meet when we’re out. But one of them lives in Colombia, and perhaps I won’t get to see him again for the rest of my life,” he said. “Being [in jail] for a couple more months just means we’ll get to hang out more—what’s wrong with that?”
It was evening at Tak Cheong Lane in Yau Ma Tei, and hungry diners were setting up tables on the side of a deserted road dotted with auto-repair shops. A blackboard sign cheerfully announced the dishes of the day: gazpacho, mexican chili with naan, tofu chocolate pie. This is So Boring, a pay-what-you-want vegetarian restaurant run by the Tak Cheong Lane co-operative. Between parties and protests, this is where you would likely find Lai.
The co-operative was formed after Occupy Central 2011, an eleven-month experiment in social space that briefly built a utopia underneath the HSBC headquarters at the heart of Central. The occupiers, operating on a flat structure with no leadership, would stay up late discussing strategy and playing music together. After the movement was broken up by police, participants like Lai carried on their alternative resistance with the co-op.
Ah Lai has a history of standing in the frontlines of social movements: at the “prostrating” procession against the demolition of Tsoi Yuen village and anti-high speed rail protests, Occupy 2011, and the 2014 Umbrella Movement. But for a while now, Lai has been contemplating how to take a more “laid back” approach to social activism: even before Occupy 2011, he was a host at community radio FM101, where the slogan was “to engage in civil disobedience with the spirit of a party-goer.” Lai also stresses the importance of forging alliances in the community, which was another way of “standing at the forefront,” he said.
In 2005, Lai and his friends decided to take the industrial building do-it-yourself spirit one step further and held their first guerrilla show in Kwun Tong, when they decided on a whim to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival. This was before social media, and they had to rely on texting and MSN to spread the news. A surprising number turned up, and the event has since become a hallowed tradition.
These events, too, were a form of social movement, Lai said. In a city, art bore an inevitable responsibility to serve as a method of resistance: “Sometimes, if you’re talking about the responsibilities that a band has, that’s too grand of a topic for them to tackle. It might be impossible to ask them to go protest, but organising a show together—that’s possible.”
“And from this, we learn more about issues to do with space, public power, or ask ourselves questions like… Why do you have to ask me to leave? Why must I apply for a licence to play here? A lot of discussions begin there.”
At his industrial building residence, Ah Lai cheerfully offers us a cigarette, the type he used to smoke back in prison. Without his long mane, he carried with him a boyish air that shaved ten years off his age, yet he also appeared frailer: while serving his sentence, he was committed to Siu Lam Psychiatric Centre for brief stints, once after merely admitting that he had seen a psychologist before.
As the musician-activist reaches his mid-thirties, he now craves stability more than ever. Apart from a modest shelf of books and a rack of clothes, his room is uncluttered, bearing the marks of one who couldn’t afford to hoard belongings.
“I’ve been nomadic for so long that I’ve got used to it,” he said. He confessed to being jealous of overseas friends who “occupied” certain spaces for as long as seven years. “How wonderful is that? But for us, we move every two or three years… It’s not cool or gypsy at all; there’s no romance.”
When he and his friends made their latest move, they agreed that their priority was with self-care and individual creation. Now that anarchists and activists tried everything—clashes, occupations, elections, it was a time for recuperation and reflection. After spending a good part of the decade fighting for New Territories villages’ right to exist, Lai and his friends are contemplating heading there themselves the next time they are forced to move.
In years past, the government and mainstream media have frequently painted Lai as the rebellious, good-for-nothing punk, which he may have inadvertently encouraged: his younger self would get wasted in the midst of protests and call for action in a state of agitation, even when he knew the media was watching.
With time, he has matured and developed better self-restraint. “What I learned the most when I was in prison was to be humble. Sometimes I’d think I am the main character… that I’m in the eye of the storm.” He would now rather focus on handling his emotions better and channeling them into his creative processes. To learn to be a more gracious person, or in his words, 有修養的普通人.
I saw Ah Lai again a week before he was due in court for his appeal hearing. Hundreds gathered at This Town Needs for a show headlined by An Id Signal: it seemed like the whole world was there—social activists, Yau Ma Tei kaifong, industrial building musicians, friends Lai quietly made throughout the years—to see one more show before he potentially returned to jail.
That people like Lai exist feels like a big fuck-you to Hong Kong’s suffocating capitalism: rejecting the nine-to-five and making activism his “occupation,” creating music outside of the commercial entertainment industry, and rebelling against the property market by taking up residence in the spacious, albeit illegal, factory units.
But Lai is not an abstract concept; he is more than the ideas he tries to live. When he was in prison, it was his larger-than-life presence, gentle soul and crooked smile we missed the most.
Ah Lai is usually so soft-spoken that it always surprises me when I see him scream in performances with such ferocity. His style defies musicality, and is often described as raw—sometimes as a nod to his unadulterated emotions, sometimes as an insult. His voice seemed like something only he truly understood.
And yet, when Lai gestured at the audience to sing to 剎那快慰, all of us knew every note and every word. I climbed onto an elevated step on the side of the railings, screamed along to the song, and wept. So long as the music went on, nothing could touch us.
Originally published in the Still / Loud magazine in February 2019. Republished online in March 2020. Holmes Chan contributed editing. Note: On September 7, 2018, Ah Lai and the twelve protesters won the appeal against their sentences at the top court, marking an end to their time in prison.