Canto-Pop Sings Hong Kong’s Working-Class Blues


JUNE 30, 2015

HONG KONG — A labor group’s cramped office in a nondescript building in working-class Kowloon is not where one would expect a producer to be working on his latest Canto-pop release, a musical genre known for syrupy ballads, upbeat hits and photogenic stars. But “WildFires,” a compilation of songs about Hong Kong’s blue-collar workers, is not a typical album.

Adrian Chow, a ponytailed music producer and former lawyer, on Monday walked into the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions headquarters to announce that a modest first run of 1,000 copies of “WildFires” would be ready by Wednesday.

“Woo-hoo!” said Gladys Wong, the album’s project coordinator. “Just in time for 7/1!”

Ms. Wong was referring to July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, which has become a day for mass protests here. While the annual demonstrations have mostly focused on pro-democracy issues, they have also increasingly drawn protesters concerned about social issues such as poverty and labor rights.

In putting the album together, Ms. Wong scoured community centers for “unsigned, unknown” indie bands, she said. The musicians, mostly in their early 20s, were invited to meet with Hong Kong laborers — including a dim sum cook, a dockworker, security guards and the staff members of a Coca-Cola factory. The workers’ stories were used as inspiration for new songs. “These kids, they were really touched by what they heard,” Mr. Chow said.

“WildFires” opens with “The Security Guard Battle Song,” based on the melody of an old folk song, and sung by eight security guards.

Could they carry a tune?

Mr. Chow shrugged. “They’re O.K. in a chorus. I sang with them.”

“Me, too,” Ms. Wong said.

“Me, too,” said Stanley Ho, a representative of the trade union group. (The project, produced on a shoestring budget, was not exactly overflowing with trained backup singers.)

“Bitterness,” written by Mr. Ho and performed by a trio called Musze, is about Lo Tang-king, a single mother who leaves in the predawn darkness to work 12 to 15 hours a day as a dim sum cook in the Central financial district, before coming home to two children who feel increasingly estranged from their mother.

On the surface, the annual July 1 march is largely about voting rights and universal suffrage, the issue that also prompted the so-called Occupy demonstrations last year. But Mr. Ho felt that Hong Kong’s income disparity, and the daily problems of the city’s working poor, were linked to deeper unhappiness about the lack of effective government representation.

“We want workers to also have the right to vote for their leader and legislature,” Mr. Ho said. “It’s important that they are politically involved.”

In Hong Kong, only part of the Legislative Council is directly elected; about half are chosen by business or other interest groups, mostly with links to China. “LegCo talks and talks and talks about laws to improve labor,” Mr. Ho said, referring to the council by its nickname. “But at the end of the day, it’s the city’s bosses who say no.”

Hong Kong had no minimum wage until 2011, when it was introduced at 28 Hong Kong dollars an hour, or about $3.60. In May, it rose to $32.50, about $4, but Mr. Ho says that is still not a living wage in a city with some of the world’s most expensive real estate.

An average blue-collar family might have multiple generations sharing a 400-square-foot apartment. Others find themselves in “subdivided flats,” which are essentially mass cubbyholes set up in postindustrial spaces.

“People are living in 100, 200 square feet with no windows,” Mr. Chow said. “This is how factory owners make their money now that manufacturing has left Hong Kong.”

Mr. Ho added that laborers had no collective bargaining rights or laws to limit working hours. “A 12-hour day is standard,” he said. “And if your boss asks you to work endless overtime, there’s nothing to legally stop him.”

The idea for “WildFires” came two years ago, when Hong Kong cargo workers staged a 40-day strike, paralyzing one of Asia’s busiest ports and piling criticism on the tycoon Li Ka-shing, Asia’s wealthiest man. News reports said the workers had received only minor pay increases during the preceding decade.

“They worked in terrible conditions,” Mr. Ho said. “Adrian and I started thinking about how we could bring this to the public attention.”

“We want to raise awareness through pop culture,” Mr. Chow added.

A “WildFires” concert will be held Aug. 16 at Hang Out, a Hong Kong music venue.

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