Victoria City by James Li

Hong Kong – an ode to Victoria City

February 25, 2014 / by / 0 Comment

An interview with a Hong Kong musician on his melancholy love song to HK, ‘Victoria City’.

A while ago, James Li, a highschool friend of mine and a very talented musician, wrote this song entitled Victoria City to capture his feelings about Hong Kong as his hometown and origin.

For maximum enjoyment, I suggest you listen to the song whilst reading.

 Half a year later, I departed from HKU to end up on the other side of the Pacific on exchange, and find myself missing the same city life that had at times repulsed me so much.  

So while chatting to James on Facebook last night, I decided to ask him about his views and experiences of Hong Kong based on lyrics I picked from his song. I’ve fused his responses here with my own to produce this small ode to the special city that we both left behind. 

Photo credit: James Li

“Dressed in lies of glass and heights”

What's the meaning behind this line?

James: Hong Kong hides its evils and poverty by having these really modern and clean facades and skyscrapers. But sometimes I feel like I could just peel those layers back, and see the concrete and grit underneath.

Michael: I couldn’t have put it any more eloquently. I feel the same way. But at the same time, being away from it all I miss seeing the lights and the high rises and just being amazed that we built something so crazy out of our collective intentions.

Photo credit: James Li

“Lan Kwai Fong, 2am”

What's your most deeply memorable experience of this?

James: I was trying to get through to somebody on an intimate level, but I couldn’t, because LKF is the opposite of intimacy. I find it to be a very nihilistic kind of place.

Michael: I have these hazy & half-recoverable memories of the zone of debauchery at 2am.  Though these recollections are generally filled with my own intoxicated elation, at other times I see it as little more than a place filled with sad people trying to get fulfillment in unhealthy ways. I have recollections of sifting through crowds of people who I know and despise, even though these people are just like me.

As James implies, I agree that it’s a very nihilistic place. Sorry. I see it as a place for young people to pretend they are successful and for older people to comfort themselves in the emptiness of their success. The only positive feelings that I’ve garnered off of Lan Kwai Fong are the ones of my friends sticking by me and me sticking by them, and the good & crazy times we’ve had together. But at the end of the day, I do miss roaming the place in the ungodly hours of morning. You see some curious things. I feel like I can relate so well to the lyrics in your song “Seventeen Years”.

“We drink to remember, And we drive to forget” 

- James Li (Seventeen Years)

Photo credit: James Li

“I’ve drunk from your waters and I know that you aint so sweet”

In terms of personal experiences & and making it here as an artist, how are the waters of Hong Kong?

James: They’re damn hard. At least for me, I’ve found Hong Kong at times to be an extremely alienating place. It’s easy to feel trapped there – to feel like the city is the only place in the universe and there’s no world outside it. I guess that’s why LKF is always so full – people want to escape.

As an artist, Hong Kong’s waters seem like endless treading. For a city of seven million, it doesn’t have many musicians or artists, and being a brilliant artist isn’t a popular ideal of success. But HK’s artist community is tightly connected, like a big village, and I really respect all HK artists as they’re often going against their family’s wishes and fighting extremely high rent.

Michael: Drinking from Hong Kong’s waters to me means the people and the environment. In these two areas, the waters of Hong Kong are so sweet. The people are amazing and both Hong Kong’s cityscape and nature are beyond rivalry, honestly. Too bad the beauty of both the people and the environment have been jaded by the vices of money & materialism. I’ve been many places but the photographs that I have of Hong Kong’s people and nature outdo those that I took of any other city I’ve been to. Maybe because they mean more because I grew up here. Seventeen Years & more. I miss all my friends in Hong Kong. And I miss all the beautiful places in HK where I’ve sat alone and contemplated nothing.

As a fellow artist, I’m big on hip-hop. I agree with you in that it’s hard because I write my own. All of the talented rappers with roots in Hong Kong are way underrated, in my opinion. I feel like Hong Kong’s population isn’t lacking in music junkies in any way. Most of them are just so distracted by the rat race of city life that we’ve forgotten our passion for art and how to slow down and get our musical fix. I know so many talented people like the ones you describe in your song Middlemen‘. These guys are consumed by their respectable full-time jobs but deep in their hearts love music but don’t have the time to nurture their talent properly.   

testPhoto credit: James Li

“Victoria City: it was never easy”

What about some of the struggles for Hong Kongers in general?

James: There was this musician I briefly met during 2011′s Clockenflap. His name was Joey Basha, and he loved Hong Kong like crazy. He adopted it as HIS city. And a few weeks later, he overdosed in a public bathroom. And I have no idea what went on, but that really left an impression on me.

Michael: I remember when news went around about Joey Basha. At the time they were circulating missing posts I was too occupied to care beyond sharing a Facebook post made by his friends. He was only believed missing at the time – that was before they found him.  Just like in every other person in Hong Kong, I guess Joey had his dreams, desires and pursuits. I maintain that, mentally, life is just as difficult for every single person in this city and on Earth, because all people have their own unique perspectives of the world. But all people live in a single point of perspective – their own.

Apparently, Joey Basha was an HKU student. For more about him, TimeOut HK wrote a tribute.

Visage OnePhoto credit: James Li

“When you had rock and you had roll / And you had heart and you had soul”

Where are your favorite places to go to get your fill of music in Hong Kong?

James:West Kowloon Park. there’s an empty lot of concrete that fills up with water after storms and becomes this massive reflection pool. And you can see all of Hong Kong’s skyline reflected perfectly, away from the traffic and noise of the city. It’s almost magical. Strolling down Soho/Sheung Wan after midnight is always a great way to clear your head. Any given skyscraper’s rooftop at night is incredibly inspiring. You feel so peacefully alone yet so surrounded. And finally, Visage One, which is possibly my favorite place in all of Hong Kong.

Michael: When I was younger I’d go to a few places. The Fringe Club is an amazing hub for Hong Kong talent. I used to go there for a musical fix before Lan Kwai Fong. Maybe that’s why I see LKF as so hideous sometimes. Hidden Agenda has been another great place for me.

Above all though, and maybe not something that I particularly miss because I take it with me, but my own room is a great place for me to get my musical fix. I think back to all the rooms I’ve holed up to make music. Wherever I’m living at the moment is my musical sanctuary- some of the places in the past have been my room at my parent’s house, my old crazy bachelor’s pad and later on my hall. Right now, I’ve moved that home studio out of Hong Kong – I took my sanctuary with me to my room in UC Santa Cruz for the next 6 months. But I’ll be back for Third Year…I miss rapping with my homies at Crib in freshman year and making music with my brothers at Ricci Hall in second year. We aren’t the best but we do it out of love.

Photo credit: James Li

“Dressed in lies of glass and heights”

Photo credit: James Li

“Lan Kwai Fong, 2am”

Photo credit: James Li

“I’ve drunk from your waters and I know that you aint so sweet”

testPhoto credit: James Li

“Victoria City: it was never easy”

Visage OnePhoto credit: James Li

“When you had rock and you had roll / And you had heart and you had soul”

James

Photo credit: James Li

Your story as how you came to write music?

I came to write music to basically put my troubles into song, when words couldn’t express things I wanted to express. I was going through one of the darkest periods of my life when my a teacher at my high school (who’s incidentally the brother-in-law of Sufjan Stevens) told me to just go for it. So I wrote a song called “She Said it was Something” recorded haphazardly on Garageband on an out of tune guitar, and realized I could keep on doing this. So I wrote about one song a week, mostly in the folk genre, and a year later I decided that I should do this for life. Or at least have ten good years of being in a band that would impact humanity for the better.

What do you write about/what’s the purpose of your music?

Again, music for me is pretty autobiographical. It’s all rooted in non-fiction and experience. I can’t divorce my songwriting from myself, because it IS me. And often that means incorporating specific events, people and locations that are part of me into them. People often describe my songs as being nostalgic and “chill” – and while I don’t disagree, I wish I could write songs that would challenge people and get them dancing – that’s what I’m working on right now. My ultimate purpose as far as songwriting goes is to write songs that are both serious, with the weight of knowledge, and danceable. So I’ve been working on some electronic material, and just experimenting and studying genres removed from folk intently.

END 

Thank you, James, for sharing your thoughts & material. You went a long way in helping me realize my vision for this post. You’re good at what you do and that inspires me to keep making my own music. I hope that readers will be similarly inspired by Hong Kong and dare to pursue their  true passion – whatever that may be.

I’ll be back at HKU soon enough. Til then, I’m on a different adventure and I’ll miss you so so much, Hong Kong. I wish you could wait for me.

All music, lyrics and photos were provided by James. Thank you!

Check out James’ SoundCloud for more amazing music.

 




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