Grasscamp 2017: the city’s third installment of nature, camping and music
Paul Benedict Lee
Now an established festival combining nature, camping and music, the blueprint for Grasscamp started as a zero-budget project. We spoke to Thickest Choi, founder of Lawnmap, to find out how it all began, his favourite moments, challenges and highlights of Grasscamp 2017.
History and development of Grasscamp
Lawnmap first started off as an organiser of regular picnics in lawns all over Hong Kong. At the end of 2011, non-profit organization Make a Difference invited Lawnmap to put on a one-day event at West Kowloon Promenade.
“We thought: there aren’t many events in Hong Kong where you could listen to music on a lawn – of course there are more now. So, we decided to organise a music festival. We didn’t even have $1 for our budget,” Choi said.
In December 2013, Lawnmap was invited to curate the two-day Freespace Fest. “We came up with an overnight programme: participants could camp and stay for the night,” Choi said. This idea would later evolve into the blueprint for Grasscamp – now a three-day camping event. Unfortunately, this idea was not realised because of inclement weather and performances on the second day were cancelled. Most did not turn up to camp overnight, although “around ten to twenty hardcore campers stayed”, said Choi.
He added: “I saw that they had a lot of fun even though it was very cold. Back then, Occupy hasn’t happened yet so it was a rare experience to camp so close to Victoria Harbour.”
While the two-day camping event at West Kowloon was cancelled, the team did not put their efforts to waste. In mid-January 2014, the event was put on in another format – this time at a campsite in Ma Tso Lung ran by the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals.
“We contacted the musicians again who weren’t able to play [in 2013], and also one or two other groups – that was how the music camp started. And it felt great, because it was so rare to see such an event encompassing both camping and music in Hong Kong,” Choi said. The event attracted over 200 people and evolved into the music camps in Fei Ngo Shan during the following two years, and in Kam Tin from 13-15 January 2017.
Hurdles and challenges
To Choi, the biggest challenge in organizing the event is finding an appropriate venue. “It is not simply a performance – we need to let participants camp overnight for two or three days,” he said. The team has to consider whether there are adequate toilet and showering facilities, as well as water for cooking and washing up. On top of this, the event has to cater to both camping aficionados and the local indie music crowd. “When you put these two groups together, sometimes it will work but sometimes they may not be used to it,” Choi said.
Grasscamp 2017: Lineup
This year’s Grasscamp ranges from The Interzone Collective’s world music, to indie superstars Chochukmo, to KaJeng Wong’s classical piano playing. “It is probably the widest range among these 5 years. And it is a great thing,” Choi said. He thinks participants of the festival will get a chance to listen to other types of music. He added: “Even within the indie scene, some may only be into one genre. But post-rock fans may enjoy classical music too.”
Memorable moments from previous Grasscamps
Supper Moment’s performance in Ma Tso Lung has a special place in Choi’s heart. He said: “Halfway through their set, they stopped and took a photo of everyone with their camera flashlights turned on. That scene was always on my mind. To be able to rerun the event in another way [after West Kowloon], and for so many people to turn up made the scene very memorable.”
Another one of Choi’s most memorable moments took place in Fei Ngo Shan last year, where the final-day performances were met with light rain. After the rain, fog surrounded the whole of the venue and the performance continued – altogether with a natural smoky effect. “The rain made it quite scary at first, as some of the events were cancelled because of the weather. It felt like after something was taken away from us, we were given something back,” Choi said.
Music festivals in Hong Kong
Choi views Grasscamp’s scale as more limited than other music festivals such as Clockenflap and Wow and Flutter. “We don’t expect to become like them,” he said. Even if they had more resources, he doesn’t desire a very large crowd. “When we reach 500 campers, we will have reached our maximum size. With more people participating, it is more difficult to deliver the best experience,” he said.
He explains: “I hope [Grasscamp] will deliver a stronger sense of a community in it. Apart from attending the 3-day festival, you can also meet other types of people. Whether you meet them through workshops, or just by chatting to people next to your camp, I think this is something we emphasise more, somehow.”
We also spoke to The Interzone Collective, Serrini and Deer on their expectations for Grasscamp 2017, musical interests, thoughts about performing at different local venues and festivals.
Why did you decide to play at Grasscamp 2017?
The Interzone Collective
Edmund: This is our first time [at Grasscamp] as The Interzone Collective. Hakgwai and I have played there before at the Campfire Stage on our own. It looked like they would take a virgin and he or she would be burned alive. [laughs] Because of this, we think that there’s a great vibe at Grasscamp.
Last time I played [Grasscamp] was at a Sheung Shui campsite. [I]t was a large football field, and already felt really great for me. I went to the Grasscamps after that in Fei Ngo Shan. It was so cool, and I thought I’d feel like a fairy singing in a mountain. But I’m not so sure about this site, so I thought: anywhere natural is fine for me already, because I’m always in the city.
Miguel: I noticed this festival last year. Something interesting for me was that they had a deer, so I thought: maybe we can try to contact them to see if we can do something.
Adriana: We have been doing more festivals lately, and we wanted to continue playing. So both things – the image and also the opportunity of playing another festival.
What are your expectations for the performance at Grasscamp 2017?
The Interzone Collective
Edmund: I expect Vicky to play. Because he is very difficult to get hold of, usually. When he is in Hong Kong, he is very busy. When he isn’t, he can’t play. And he is actually studying in America now – tell us about what you’re studying.
Vicky: I am studying conducting at Eastman School of Music.
Edmund: Every time we play, we sign up on our group. I guess we might have a full team this time. I have problems counting numbers after five.
Hakgwai: First, I need to thank Grasscamp because it has given us such a great environment to enjoy music. It is special because it has offers nature, music and the audience as a three-in-one package. Last year, Edmund and I participated in the event. This year, the whole Interzone Collective will be there. I can now imagine that there will be beautiful girls dancing around the campfire – that is the minimum charge [laughs].
I don’t [laughs]. I just want to enjoy myself. Friday isn’t a public holiday, right? Probably people who will be there won’t have regular jobs and it could be fun?
Miguel: As we are expats, we want to have some opportunities to perform in local festivals as we want local people to see us perform. I think [the audience] are going to be surprised, because of our image onstage.
Adriana: We are very passionate and enjoy to be on the stage. We want to share that energy to the people.
How did you start exploring the style of music or instruments that you play now?
The Interzone Collective
Vicky: I was invited by one of the members, [Tong Pi] Si. I played with him in a percussion trio where I played the Indian tabla and Si played the frame drum. Then I thought the tabla could be a good addition to Interzone. So, he invited me, just like how it happens in RPG games. Not a lot of people play the tabla in Hong Kong, except Indians [laughs].
Moka: I watched a group of Japanese DJs who played the asalato on the internet, and I found it very handy and interesting. So, I kept looking on the internet and I practiced mostly learning through YouTube videos. I’ve been playing for around five to six years.
Edmund: I also learned through YouTube videos. Isn’t YouTube great? It was slightly difficult to buy one when I first bought it […] two or three years ago. In 2001, two Swiss men first invented the instrument.
And because everyone liked it so much, the supply never met the demand. You had to email them first, and if they think it’s worthwhile for you to own it, you can then fly to their shop and select the instrument. It’s a big deal. And after playing it for one to two years, it will go out of tune […] and you must take it back to their shop and let them tune it. To them, the instrument must accompany the person as it has a connection with them. That was how the handpan culture started off.
And now it has evolved to be more relaxed, and there are more [handpan] makers. But there is still no retail – there is no such thing as a handpan shop. You still have to directly contact the maker, but tuning is no longer a problem.
Hakgwai: My encounter with world music first came around four years ago. I went to Australia for a working holiday, where I was a street performer. I went busking everywhere and first played the erhu. Later, I met lots of friends who played [world music] instruments and learned to play the didgeridoo. I first saw the handpan and asalato in Melbourne.
I always enjoyed playing the guitar, drums and singing. I was the vocalist of Chockma, and used to play some heavier music. Now, I am a schizophrenic and have ventured to the unplugged side [laughs].
I think it’s because I’m not a musician at all, that’s why I started with the easiest form which is the acoustic side. Of course, acoustic is not easy at all, but it’s easy for you to pick up this instrument to an acceptable level. And I like the tonal quality of [the guitar], especially in a small space. I like non-intrusive music, but I also like intrusive ones – you know, my [Christmas Eve] party was crazy. I played [the flute] when I was 12, so I can dig it out again. It’s gonna be like a parody performance, you know – like the video where someone played the recorder to Celine Dion.
Musically, I don’t listen to a lot. It’s more like the books I read. It’s more the thematics of my music more than the musicality of it. I let other people take care of the music part. I’m maybe inspired by Leonard Cohen – I like the coarse voice singing about human condition. I’m not really up for using my voice as a prowess: it’s more like me consoling myself, a self-to-self conversation.
I recently just love W.H. Auden. I like John Keats’ poetry, Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw’s plays. For essays, I find Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not A Christian” quite interesting. For something more contemporary, I like Gillian Flynn’s novels. When I was in Form 6, I really liked the Twilight trilogy. But when the movie came out, I denied that I ever liked the series. I like David Graeber’s Debt, Richard Schusterman and John Dewey.
Miguel: We never try to copy anything – we don’t sample, but I think the sound we are getting now are all the things we listened. It’s not that we want to sound industrial, but it’s only because we like to listen to a lot of music. We love Massive Attack, Portishead and Nine Inch Nails. What is interesting is that these bands all have a drummer. In our case, it’s samples, synths [and] guitar – but we try to play as much as possible live.
What are some elements for your live performances?
The Interzone Collective
Edmund: When we played at Wow and Flutter, nearly the whole 45-minute show was improvised. We said: [points at Moka] “you start first”, and [points at Vicky] “you’ll end” – that’s it. At West Kowloon [Freespace], only 5 minutes were improvised […] and there was a fixed setlist. So it depends on the occasion, and what we want to try.
I would perform something more acoustic, perhaps with the piano and guitar too. And I will probably try to play the flute too because it’s in the nature.
Adriana: We’ve done some changes for the set. We did it because we had some songs where we didn’t have the opportunity to put on stage.
Miguel: There are some people who have attended our shows regularly in Hong Kong. One of our friends told us: I have seen you perform six times in two months, I know all the songs already. So we thought, we need to change. We will do a new intro and a new song in the beginning.
For any indie band, they have the same problem: it’s not the same people attending your shows. Almost everybody [at Grasscamp] will be new, [so] we thought: let’s try to do something different.
What do you think of music festivals in Hong Kong?
The Interzone Collective
Edmund: Grasscamp is a more relaxed festival, and quite fun. There aren’t many big problems with it, and you won’t find any troublemakers. It is also intimate and comfortable, according to my understanding.
Clockenflap is really a proper music festival. There are international acts, and an artists’ area for us to eat, and they taste great – it’s probably hotel catering. The last time I played there, I ate four or five rounds. And the next day my stomach hurt, I was so full. And because of societal circumstances, nowadays many people say “Hong Kong is an international city”. Clockenflap is one of the elements that establish this saying […] and fulfills this standard.
Moka: Maybe Clockenflap is stricter towards some local artists, and some may have hard feelings on this. Apart from this, there’s nothing wrong with the festival itself.
Recently, the Silvermine Music Festival was held – now that is very upsetting. You have Heung Yee Kuk [as sponsors], and the Wang Chau housing scandal happened at that time. When you mix all this together, there are lots of problems with it. But it is also very absurd: you have a group of people who are passionate about music, and they might have reluctantly gave in. But personally, I think: if you can’t organize it in Silvermine Bay, then do it somewhere else. You have to do what you do, but sometimes you can’t just give in.
Hakgwai: Grasscamp feels very indie, and is a local independent production to me. And the audience it attracts is more down-to-earth – mainly local youngsters. Whether it be musical genres or range of activities, events at Grasscamp are also quite vast.
I really like them. Great outdoor activities, especially for stay-at-home nerds like me. I really need events to go out too, and they’re great for people who are too lazy or just don’t know about the local music scene. If they get a ticket, they will get a brochure – a metaphorical one – to local music.
Adriana: I can give my opinion as a person on a limbo. It’s really hard for us, as Mexicans, to be [on] one side or another. You can see a very commercial and international festival such as Clockenflap, and [a] very local one [Wow and Flutter]. We are in the middle because we don’t feel that we are in one community or the other – it is really strange. On the other hand, we don’t speak Cantonese. We get along with Hongkongers but we are not with them all the time. As we are in the middle, we have to cross the borders all the time.
Of course, nothing is perfect and each festival has its pluses and minuses, [but] we are not focusing on that – not anymore. I don’t want to polarise this.
Miguel: This is interesting because the music scene in Hong Kong is polarised. You have Clockenflap where almost 90% of the audience are expats, and Wow and Flutter where [it] is almost for all local bands.
What are the most memorable venues that you have played at?
The Interzone Collective
Moka: When you play at different venues with different crowds, you will carry a different mood too.
Hakgwai: Of course the most memorable one is Grasscamp. [laughs]
Edmund: When we first kicked off the concept of The Interzone Collective, we started at a place in Tai Hang called Feel So Good. At that time, we did two or three shows and the environment was great. Hakgwai also played there – it was the first time I met him. We called a group of handpan players and “9jammed” [jammed freely]. Because of the venue’s atmosphere and its sound, everything was quite established.
We also organized many Interzone Production shows at Art & Cultural Outreach in Foo Tak Building. We did many experiments there: Hakgwai and Byon’s performance, The Speechless Deer where we put modern dance, acting and handpan music together […] as a half-structured, improvised show.
Vicky: The first time playing at Clockenflap was quite memorable. I usually play in concert halls, and playing on a festival main stage feels different from playing for an orchestra at an outdoor concert.
I’m obsessed with venues too and I don’t like to repeat. My recent favourite one is a really small cabaret […] gallery in Kennedy Town. It was such an emotional performance and I teared up. I think only 10 people came. We had five acts, it’s more of a communal sharing. I really enjoy small and intimate spaces.
Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share?
The Interzone Collective
Edmund: I chatted with a friend just now about my thinking towards music. When I was young, I didn’t know much. I asked my sister the difference between a bachelor degree, masters and PhD. She told me: after completing your bachelors, you do your masters then your PhD. I wondered, why didn’t the PhD students have to go to school?
Then I discovered that PhD students must produce something new on top of what you learned. To me, this is a very impressive concept to a kid less than 10 years old. And I think it applies to every field – you must be familiar with your own thing, and your ultimate goal should be to act on it and take a further step. In hindsight, I realized that I always had this push – when I was a producer, and also with my former band.
Hakgwai: A small assignment for everyone: don’t leave any rubbish behind at Grasscamp. I hope everyone can take care of their own plastics, and that everyone can treat the venue like their home. Everyone is responsible for treasuring the environment!
Adriana: We are coming from Mexico City, which is very rich in cultural activities. It is something that I miss. I don’t think it’s impossible for Hong Kong. It’s about crossing the boundaries and pushing a little bit. I think you have a very interesting community of artists in Hong Kong, and it’s interesting how expats create music.
Grasscamp 2017 will be held on 13 to 15th January 2017 at Shui Tau Village, Kam Tin, New Territories. To find out more details, visit the Lawnmap website.