Hong Kong once again came under the spotlight of international media after local police and immigration officers arrested British rock band TTNG and American musician Mylets for not securing work visas to perform in the city and for performing in an unlicensed venue inside an industrial building in Kwun Tong.
The case brought to fore widespread complaints about the difficulty of applying for a “places of public entertainment” license in the city as well as work visas for overseas performers.
These difficulties, critics say, hurt Hong Kong’s image as an international and cosmopolitan city, and cast doubts on our claim that we enjoy freedom of expression here.
How could we consider our city a cultural hub in the region if independent artists, those who don’t have the support of big companies, studios and recording labels, find it difficult to perform here in front of their fans?
But no less than outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying supported the action taken by the police and immigration bureau with regard to the unauthorized performance organized by Hidden Agenda.
“Breaking the law is breaking the law,” he said, noting that the organizers of the event and the performers had violated certain ordinances.
Speaking to reporters before attending an Executive Council meeting, Leung also said the safety of everyone has to be considered when it comes to activities inside industrial buildings, adding that not all activities in such places are acceptable.
Meanwhile, he said, the government program to “revitalize” industrial buildings has been successful.
Pro-Beijing legislator Ma Fung-kwok, who represents the cultural sector, has urged the government to loosen up visa requirements for overseas performers, following the arrest of the four foreign musicians at the Kwun Tong gig.
Ma said if a performer stays here for only a short period or doesn’t get compensation for the show, then he or she should be exempted from getting a work visa.
The lawmaker noted that the government has started to clamp down on arts and leisure activities inside industrial buildings following the fatal blaze in such a building in Kowloon Bay in June last year. Two firemen died as they tried to put out the fire in the building’s mini-storage facilities.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, overseas performers have found it hard to get their work visa applications approved if they are to perform in industrial buildings.
While the government cannot be faulted for giving utmost importance to public safety, it has done nothing to help independent artists organize events and perform in public in a legal way.
On social media, independent music practitioners note that applying for a “places of public entertainment” license could be a “mission impossible” for organizers without sufficient financial backup, as the whole procedure involves going through so many government agencies.
They say that if an application is rejected by a single department, the applicant will have to start the entire process all over again.
The government may advise event organizers to apply for the use of any of the government venues, but everyone knows that securing a spot in such a venue is like winning the lottery because your chances of being able to book a date are almost nil.
Because of these difficulties, organizers have little choice but to stage their events in industrial buildings, hidden from the prying eyes of bureaucrats and law enforcers – well, not quite, as TTNT and Mylets found out.
Some observers note the political roots of current ordinances on live entertainment and performances.
They say that the provisions of these laws were drafted after the 1967 riots, and the main consideration was to prevent leftist activists inspired by the Cultural Revolution across the border from organizing activities that would affect the social stability of Hong Kong.
While such ordinances have been around long before the 1997 handover, the CY Leung administration can now use them as weapons to crack down on activities of the opposition.
The motivation, therefore, has become political.
For example, if a pro-democracy group decides to invite a speaker from overseas, it has to secure a work visa for that person before he or she can deliver a speech in the city.
In fact, after the Hidden Agenda incident, some pan-democrats are asking if pro-Beijing scholars and protesters from overseas applied for appropriate visas and permits before participating in activities in Hong Kong.
The loyalist camp would argue that such a comparison is unfair. But if performing in a concert requires a work visa, then giving a speech in a seminar should also have the same requirement.
If a Beijing scholar gives a speech in Hong Kong, could pro-democracy activists call the police to have the speaker arrested for not having a work visa?
Following the Kwun Tong incident, the government should introduce an easier, simpler way for foreign singers and artists to secure work visas and perform legally in local venues.
It should also work to classify some industrial buildings as appropriate venues for concerts and entertainment activities in order to enhance the city’s reputation as a cultural and artistic hub in the region.
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