Despite being one of the most densely populated areas in the world, Hong Kong and its 263 Islands still reserves 40% of its land mass for country parks and nature reserves. The last colony to secede from the British Empire in 1997, the Chinese territory – translating as “fragrant harbour” – still maintains English as its primary language alongside Cantonese. A melting pot of eastern and western culture, Hong Kong has a lot to discover beneath the glass veneer of its 8000 skyscrapers, the most in the world and double its nearest rival New York.
Guiding us around this city of contrasts is Blood Wine or Honey a band made up of multi-instrumentalists Shane Aspegren, Joseph von Hess and James Banbury. Drawn together in Hong Kong after their families moved there a few years ago, they make subversive, free-spirited experimentations – like a ritualistic The Comet Is Coming – with Gilles Peterson among the growing list of fans for their debut album Fear & Celebration out this June.
Listen to their Hong Kong mix, made up of local artists or music with a strong connection to the islands, from 70s disco to punk and hip-hop.
Browse through the interactive map as you read more about the band’s favourite spots.
Favourite place to buy records?
White Noise Records in Mong Kok is the best record shop in Hong Kong. Gary Leong, the owner, is a stalwart of the scene and is always supportive of new and emerging Hong Kong indie / electronic music.
Favourite live music venue?
James: EatonHK (previously Eaton Hotel) in Kowloon, has a new live venue in the Pearl Ballroom which we played at recently. I think we’re the fourth show there so very much early days. It’s great to have a new choice for putting on shows in Hong Kong as it’s quite a struggle to find a good, flexible and reasonable place to perform.
Shane: Empty Gallery in Tin Wan. In addition to their consistently excellent Black Cube gallery space, they also host occasional concerts (and less frequently, raves) from renowned international free/experimental/etc artists.
Joseph: The newly opened Tai Kwun (‘Big Station’) in Central, a former police headquarters dating from 1864, is shaping up to be an amazing space for the arts. Live music in their beautifully restored, cloistered inner courtyard will be a wonderful addition to an area of the city with very little open space.
Best soundsystem / favourite club?
Shane: Potato Head Hong Kong has a beautiful sound system in their vinyl room.
Best party in the city?
Shane: Sense 99 is one of the best places to meet a random selection of locals. Anyway, it’s usually a party!
James: Not a an actual party as such, but Bound by Hillywood in Prince Edward is a great place to hang out and chat with non-conformists. Everyone from the cool local hip-hop crews to art gallery folk end up here on a weekend. And far from the crappily commercial LKF scene on Hong Kong island.
Best view of the city?
James: Shatin Pass Road above Wong Tai Sin, Kowloon.
Joseph: Take a junk trip in the harbour, or nip across it on the Star Ferry—but choose the cheaper lower deck to get a bit of ocean spray and a whiff of diesel from the huge engine below decks. The Peak on Hong Kong Island is the obvious place for tourists to see the view and be fleeced in the mall they built up there—but you can just dodge that bit and take a walk along one of the many lanes and footpaths that wind around Victoria Peak, for a walk in the shade of the trees and some grand vistas of the city here and there.
Shane: I’m partial to the view at the top of the mountain between Big Wave Bay and Siu Sai Wan.
Best spot for a picnic?
Shane: The beach at Turtle Cove is a nice, tucked away spot for a BBQ on HK Island.
James: There’s a large open lawn and platforms with views of the harbour in Tamar Park. Great spot to watch the Chinese New Year fireworks. The Freespace Happenings at WKCD are relaxed monthly music, performance and art focused events that run from September to March. Picnic on lovely lawns and beanbags.
Jo: We go over to Hong Kong Disneyland on the train, but then walk right past the entrance at the Disneyland hotel. There’s a great secret lawn area there with ocean breezes to cool you down.
Shane: Yardbird for drinks and Yakitori.
James: Good coffee shops were a little thin on the ground when I first arrived in Hong Kong back in 2010, and I would always take a detour to Cafe Corridor (established 2001) in Causeway Bay. Head down a corridor at street level opposite the taxi rank at Times Square. It’s still going strong. Au, the owner also has a great place in TST called N1 Coffee & Co.
My new favourite if I’m out on the west side of Hong Kong island is noc – and it also serves great food. A very small place called Nutsy is handy when out east at Quarry Bay. The industrial area of Kwun Tong has Return Coffee and is close to where we used to rehearse at Michael Hansen’s Unit 7.
Shane: Sister Wah for noodles.
James: For a refined Cantonese dim sum experience – but not too blingy or expensive – Tze Yuet Heen is perfect and in the Crowne Plaza hotel out in Tseung Kwan O. It’s worth noting that AC temperatures are fiercely cold in most Hong Kong restaurants. You may need to take an extra layer with you.
What are the best local dishes or street food?
James: Egg Waffles (鷄蛋仔 – gaai daan jai) are delicious warm crispy waffles with egg-shaped bite-sized puffs. The line at LKK at 178 Nathan Road, TST, is testimony to this indisputable fact.
Joseph: At its best, cheung fan (腸粉 – rice noodle roll) makes excellent street food: doused in soy and peanut sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. You can find it everywhere—but look for a busy stall, it’ll be worth the wait.
Is there somewhere you like going to escape the hustle and bustle and take some time away for yourself?
Joseph: I’m always on a budget, so Hong Kong’s libraries are a pretty good bet when I need to cool off and, um, give myself a time out! For many local people it is a seriously comfortable, spacious, air-conditioned alternative to their own cramped apartments. There is one regular in Tung Chung library, sitting at the same computer terminal every time. He watches the racing with the Racing Post to hand, socks off, old newspaper laid out on the floor to keep things tidy. He has his flask, headphones and all manner of other home comforts around him. He’s always there.
The impressive Central Library (confusingly not in the island’s Central district but overlooking Victoria Park in Causeway Bay) is definitely worth a look, but for a conveniently located, peaceful browse I prefer the well-stocked City Hall Library (in Central!), which is housed in a pretty neat 1960s minimalist block overlooking the harbour.
James: I currently live a bit out of town close to Clearwater Bay and I can quickly escape into the forest or down to the local beach (Silverstrand) for a bit of a recharge. It’s a surprise to many first time visitors how green Hong Kong is, and you find yourself in close proximity to nature all the time – you can walk (or ride the escalator) for 20 minutes from Central and be on the side of Victoria Peak deep in the jungle.
Shane: Take a long hike or a pretty amazing speedboat ride to Tai Long Wan for an overnight camp on the beach.
Best place to experience something unique to Hong Kong?
James: Cantonese opera in a temporary bamboo theatre is a sight (and sound) to behold. Throughout the year, and particularly around special days like the Tin Hau or Hung Shing Festivals, theatres pop up in public squares. Normally the series runs for three or four days and the operas themselves can be four or more hours long. With names like The Monkey King Thrice Beats the Bony Ghost and often involving convoluted stories of love, intrigue, war, power, and mistaken identity, it’s a challenging and acquired taste for some. But as most of them are free to enter, you can dip in and get a great dose of Hong Kong (and Guangdong Province) culture. One of my favourite theatres appears right across the main square of tiny fishing village Po Toi O around mid-October – it also has two great seafood restaurants right on the water.
First thing you miss after leaving Hong Kong?
James: That really depends on where you’re going. The efficient underground railway system (MTR) is very clean, fast, and relatively cheap. You certainly miss it when struggling through interminable traffic in some of the other SE Asian capitals.
Joseph: If I go back to Wales, where I’m from, I immediately miss being able to just hang around outdoors all day and far into the evening without so much as a shiver. It’s all very well having outdoor space but winters in Wales feel like forever!
Best place to see another medium of art other than music?
Shane: Para Site is one of the city’s (and Asia’s) best independent art spaces and always worth checking out. There are several high quality galleries on the south side of HK Island, like the aforementioned Empty Gallery and Blindspot. Also Tai Kwun Contemporary in the former Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison has just officially opened, which should be a major boon to HK.
Joseph: I like to stop outside any of the small centres running art classes for youngsters. They’re dotted all over Hong Kong. There’s always some brilliant, strange or downright disturbing paintings displayed in the window.
What are your favourites shops for things other than music?
Joseph: The Chinese Goods Centre over in North Point is pretty great. I have found (and bought) old stock in there dating from the 1960s: odd household items, trinkets, clothes and musical instruments.
James: Kubrick bookstore and cafe in Yau Ma Tei is a great place to find a varied selection of art, film and architecture publications. The owners also run the Broadway Circuit chain of cinemas, and their arthouse / repertory cinema Cinematheque is in the same building.
Are there any markets worth checking out?
Joseph: Pretty much any market in the city is worth exploring if you’re a visitor, and Hong Kong’s many municipal wet markets are an undeniably vital asset in a city dominated by malls, with prices that generally reflect the living standards of local people. I think Sham Shui Po has it all though. Yes it’s an undeniable tourist destination; the justly famous Apliu Street market is packed with every electronic gadget and component under the sun. Exploring the surrounding streets though, you will find all manner of clothing, food, general provisions, endless haberdashery stores and weird and wonderful odds and ends from 90s laserdiscs to antique jade jewellery. If you get hungry, the food court on the 8th floor of the nearby Dragon Centre is well worth a visit too. Meanwhile Chun Yeung Street Market in North Point has a great down-at-heel atmosphere, with trams running straight down the middle of it and some of the best knock-off character t-shirts on earth.
If we had to buy one local thing from your city to take back, what would it be?
Joseph: Track down this guy. He’ll conjure up an amazing, chimerical creation from molten sugar while you watch:
James: Kee Wah bakery goods are beautifully packaged and very much represent the best in biscuits and cakes in Hong Kong. You can find them all over Hong Kong and at the airport.
What’s the best and worst thing about living in Hong Kong?
Joseph: Best thing is the sheer flow of energy. Worst thing is the way that the creative urge is so often subsumed by the desire to compete, to win, and to profit from others.
James: Best thing is the topography. Worst thing is the braying entitled Westerners flashing the cash and ruining it for the rest of us.
Shane: Best thing is the mountain/city/sea-scapes in every direction. Worst thing is the crowds of sweaty bankers.
Who’s doing good things for Hong Kong music right now, who you’d like to shout out?
Are there any interesting organisations/charities/projects involving music based/happening in your city?
Joseph: Kung Chi Shing deserves a mention here. Not so much an organisation as a one-man powerhouse promoting local, independent and underground music. He really has changed the landscape and poured his time and energy into creating events and opportunities for music to thrive in this city, as well as effectively tapping the coffers of rich organisations with plenty of money to spare!
Who are some of your favourite up-and-coming DJs/producers/ musicians bubbling up in Hong Kong right now?
Cocoonics supported our recent album launch show and played a fantastic set. Definitely one to watch.
Fotan Laiki is something of a phenomenon: a muse for bands such as My Little Airport, a symbol for disenfranchised youth and a huge star in the making.
Could you tell us about the mix you’ve made for us?
Every track is either from a Hong Kong artist, or has a very strong connection to Hong Kong culture. There’s everything from 60s hits, 70s disco and 80s Cantopop to indie, techno, hip hop, punk, film soundtracks and experimental noise.
Where and how did you record it, what was the idea behind it?
It’s put together in a mixtape style in Ableton, and we want it to show the breadth of music that comes (or came) out of this small outcrop on the southern coast of China.
And finally, what’s on the horizon for you in terms of live dates or releases we should look out for?
Fear & Celebration, our debut album, has just been released by Do Right! Music out of Toronto. We are appearing at Le Castrum festival in Switzerland this August and also booked in for Quest Festival in Vietnam. Plans afoot for further trips to Europe, India and Japan.
1. I Want Your Love (I Want You to Be My Baby) – Grace Chang
2. “火炭麗琪” ft. YoungQueenz – Fotan Laiki
3. District March – Preservation
4. Love in the Shadows – George Lam
5. QQbabygirl 夏日閪水禮 flip – ASJ
6. Smog – David Boring
7. ‘Yumeji’s Theme (Theme from “In the Mood for Love”) – Shigeru Umebayashi (edit)
with Kung Chi Shing (excerpt from KUNG HONG KONG)
8. The Undying Overrated – Blood Wine or Honey
9. Purple Jade Hairpin – Chen Lingyu & Zeng Hui
with Sampans (re-edit) – Lalo Schifrin
10. Poppin – Big Spoon
11. TIGERBOMBERS (demo) – Tigerbombers
12. Sci Fi Fog – Project Soda
13. The Traveller – Wilson Tsang
with part of KUNG HONG KONG – A portrait of Kung Chi Shing
14. Peak Helium A – Blood Wine or Honey
15. 半斤八兩 (電影「半斤八兩」歌曲 / theme tune to The Private Eyes) – 許冠傑 [Sam Hui]
Blood Wine or Honey – Fear & Celebration LP is out now on Plastic Pagan – buy from Bandcamp.