Did you know that Hong Kong means ‘fragrant harbour’ in Cantonese? Hong Kong is said to contain the world’s best airport and to have the highest income per capita, but is the most expensive city in the world, with one of the biggest income gaps between the rich and the poor. Hong Kong is reckoned to have the highest average IQ in the world and while it has one of the highest public transport travelling rates of all cities, it also has most mortalities due to air pollution. More importantly for this story, it is home to musical couple The Bollands, who talked over their ex-pat Kiwi exploits with Silke Hartung while back in Auckland for a Kiwi summer break.
The Bollands are Joyce and Christian Bolland, who play foot-stomping folk and have been together long enough to finish each other’s sentences. The pair decided to leave our fair shores for new adventures abroad in 2011. Having spent time in Taiwan three years earlier they were looking for a fairly central, international base and knew they wanted to get back to Asia. Singapore and Hong Kong were both short-listed, but ultimately they decided that Hong Kong with its relative proximity to the rest of the world (as compared to New Zealand) was most suitable for them.
“In the beginning we didn’t know anyone,” states Christian. “We had been in touch with a really cool bar there, called The Wanch, which has live music every night. We got in touch with a guy called John Primmer, who owns it, by email. He said, ’Yeah, come and play a gig.’ There’s also the Hong Kong Underground, who we contacted. They organise gigs and stuff like that. They’re sort of a hub there, and theres a bunch of others – you can find everyone online and organise gigs like that easily.”
Joyce reveals that it’s best to look for any kind of part-time job, as that’s enough to be sponsored for a visa. Christian jokes that it makes sense to find the most brainless job one possibly can.
“Don’t over commit on a day job!” he advises.
Hong Kong is renowned as a city where business thrives, so self-employment is another option, but for that it’s best to be more established in the city, Joyce reckons. We talk about challenges they had after they first arrived. Christian recalls that the city has proven culturally intense.
“When we first moved into our apartment, we thought there was a festival going on outside because it was so loud – but it wasn’t a festival – it was just Tuesday.”
They live in a crazy-busy business district explains Joyce. “I got to a point where I decided that all I want in life is walk three steps forward in a straight line!”
Both agree that it takes some getting used to being surrounded by so many people all the time. It took them about three months.
“Living there, it can go either way – either you start to enjoy it, find it really funny and go with it, feel really zen about it – or people go the other way. Some have been there for 10 or 20 years and just hate everything. That’s why you’re here, you’re in a foreign country, you may as well embrace it!”
They say the local music scene feels like a real community and that being from overseas helps.
“We’re a bit more interesting to them – people are into our accents,” says Christian.
Surprisingly Hong Kong lacks underground live venues (for reasons such as hard-to-get licenses and potential problems with noise control in such a densely populated space), but as a result their gigs can be much more diverse than in NZ. In time this led to The Bollands developing a different sound from the quiet and shoe-gazey one they left home with.
“In Hong Kong we would all of a sudden play with rock bands, so we had to compete with them as far as presence and noise goes. You try to fill the stage as good as you can. After a while we changed our sound quite a bit and started playing upbeat drinking songs.”
It seemed they arrived just as Hong Kong started to discover acoustic folk music and there was soon a lot of interest in The Bollands’ foot-stomping, singalong tunes. Enough for them to be playing four or five times a week – and turning down other gigs because it was getting too much. Playing to a lot of different people almost every night meant that their first album sold out quickly and is currently only available digitally.
Much of the band’s income is from corporate gigs.
“Hong Kong has so much money, it’s insane!” exclaims Joyce “They don’t expect you to be a covers band at corporate gigs, either!”
About 80% of the businesses are large companies sponsoring festivals, have huge Christmas parties and according to Christian and Joyce, are more than willing to spend money on staging large events four to six times a year as part of their marketing.
On the cards after a summer back home in NZ, in mid April, is a tour of Taiwan, before The Bollands try pushing into mainland China. Earlier forays into nearby cities in China taught them that it’s extremely hard to organise gigs there by email.
“Even if people use emails its in Chinese, plus theres no MySpace or Facebook – all of a sudden you notice how much networking you actually do using those. We know a few bands who pop over the border from time to time, so were trying to get a lot of information from them.”
They’ve found that bands use agents to get booked and Joyce says the way to go will be hiring a translator, but the real challenge will be to find one who’s not dodgy. She speaks some Mandarin, and has been trying to learn Cantonese in the hope that organising gigs themselves will be much easier with basic communication skills.
Overall, life in the bustling Asian metropolis seems swell for The Bollands. Christian and Joyce love Hong Kong and can’t believe that more of the city’s residents don’t appreciate how great it is to be a musician over there.