Made in Hong Kong – The Red Stripes

Big Boss Man
When The Darkness Returns
Mercy (Show A Little)
Can’t Stand The Heat
Do The Ska
Don’t Build Twice
Train Wreck
55 Minutes Later
Made in Hong Kong Dub

I listened to Made In Hong Kong while waiting for the 671 bus from Ngau Tau Kok to Ap Lei Chau. Turning around, I was greeted by the ruins of Yue Man Square and the old Kwun Tong – Lam Tin Minibus terminal whose metal signage has long since rusted so only the faintest red lines of the Chinese lettering can still be seen. Yue Man Square is under control of the Urban Renewal Authority who is building a new glass mall in its place (with a bridge to linking it to the old glass mall, APM, across the road).

It was not meant to be a test, but it became a test. Looking around at my surroundings, I realized that I was standing, and looking straight at, the very history that Made In Hong Kong refers to in its title and album design. Kwun Tong is one of the last surviving truly industrial centres in Hong Kong. The majority of the buildings from here all the way to Kowloon Bay are relics of a past time – some of them now malls, others office blocks, some still factories.

If there was anywhere to indulge in the spirit of Made In Hong Kong, it would be here.

Did the music then fit in with the surroundings? Did it conjure up monochromatic images of men and women working in shoddy health and safety conditions in order to put a Made in Hong Kong stamp on a barbie doll that would be soon shipped to some kid in California?

The answer is complicated.

Yes. Was the first answer that came to me.

Yes, it did sound exactly like something from the period. Not that I’m only judging Made in Hong Kong solely on its ability to imitate the past (The Red Stripes are, after all, not a 50s band – they’re a 2000s band) but the title is something that’s proud to the city so it should be respected. And it is respected – there is not a single boring track on the album and very few musical elements to criticize.

The opening song Big Boss Man, which was recently performed on RTHK, loudly and lyrically opens the album in spirit and style. A lighthearted jab at bosses that only look the part but don’t do all that much (When you look like a boss, with your pen behind your ear now/do you ever stop, are you wearing the right gear now), the song is well within the sort of lyrical sphere you’d expect from the title of the album. But the references go deeper than that – there are oddities like the title of the song, which isn’t quite English grammar, and the coy use of Indonesian in the calypso sections which could be read as criticisms of Hong Kong’s reliance on labour from South-East Asian countries and the sometimes terrible conditions that these workers, which are vital to our economy, work in. Definitely the sort of song and conversation that would have been had in a Kwun Tong factory building.

Now, not every song is meant to be read with twenty layers of reading, much of the album is just good old-fashioned ska. Though only their second official album, The Red Stripes are Hong Kong’s premier Ska band, their previous album ‘In The Ska East’ was listed by ‘Do The Dog Skazine’ this year as one of the world’s Top 20 Ska albums. They’ve performed all around Asia and were even invited to this year’s International Ska Festival in London in April (fingers crossed about that one). With this in mind, Made In Hong Kong does not disappoint. Tracks such as Innocent, Mercy (Show A Little) and Do The Ska show The Red Stripes’ incredible versatility in Ska’s many forms from rocksteady, calypso, soul and many others. Do The Ska in particular really harkens back to a bygone era with its straight-forward yet infectious rhythms, melody and lyrics telling you exactly how to do a made up dance (Do the ska, everybody do the ska/When you dance the ska, you forget where you are).

There is one track that I found a little weaker and that’s When The Darkness Returns. There’s nothing wrong with the lyrics or the musical composition, one of the darker tracks on the album, the song which includes Latin inspired trumpet riffs is welcomed as a contrast to the rest of the upbeat happy album. However, there’s something lacking in the performance. Fred Croft’s usually lively vocals are slightly dry in this song and Sarah Watson, who performs amazingly on Mercy (Show A Little) really misses the mark on When The Darkness Returns – her sections are noticeably musically flat. Of course, to fix something like that, you could say that The Red Stripes should have employed a little technology and simply autotuned it, but that would be against the album’s spirit. According to the linear notes, the album was completed recorded on vintage recording equipment something that is highly, highly commended and adds a lot to the album’s soul.

The final track on the album is Made In Hong Kong. I wasn’t sure what to expect for this song – maybe a eulogy to the good-old-days of Hong Kong’s industrial era? Maybe a ballad about the past? Maybe a happy ska celebration of Hong Kong’s many thriving communities. It is none of the above, it’s a techno-ska dubstep fusion instrumental with retro sounds referencing old ads, video games and computing systems (Fred Croft’s highly edited groan is a highlight). It’s absolutely not what I expected and a massive contrast to the rest of the band’s much more traditional output, but one that, after listening a few times, is a welcome surprise.

An incredibly well written and performed album featuring ska inspired by a whole lot of different musical cultures from rock, to jazz, to calypso and even dubstep, Made In Hong Kong is an album that deserves its prestigious and proud title.
– Cyril Ma

Made in Hong Kong will be released on 30th March 2020. Please visit The Red Stripes website to find out more details.

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