Photo: Chris Lusher © Clockenflap
Photo: Chris Lusher © Clockenflap

The gates open once more on the Clockenflap Music Festival in Hong Kong this month, bringing a collection of the biggest international rock and pop acts to a city that until a few years ago was considered a musical backwater.

With original superstar DJs The Chemical Brothers and Icelandic experimental pop favourites Sigur Ros topping a bill that boasts more than 100 acts, the three-day event, from November 25-27, represents another step in the city’s transformation in that regard.

Many remember well how Elton John cancelled a gig in the late 1990s after government officials suggested fans listen to the show through headphones to avoid the event breaching noise regulations. Just a few years earlier, concert goers had been asked to wear gloves to stifle the noise from their applause.

Now, thanks in large part to the influence of Clockenflap, up and coming bands and major international acts alike regularly make the southern Chinese city a stop on their world tours.

In the past few years, big draws such as Morrissey, French disco rockers M83 and British pop giants The 1975 have joined a throng of lesser-known musical upstarts including Thee Oh Sees and folk singer Kurt Vile in performing in the city. They’re even beginning to compete for ticket dollars with Hong Kong’s established home-grown Cantopop stars and using it as a springboard into the “lucrative uncharted waters of China,” as Suede’s Mat Osman recently put it.

“We felt a festival of this nature was something sorely missing in Hong Kong, and that the city needed it,” explains Clockenflap’s music director Justin Sweeting. “We all realised we’d rather spend our time and efforts trying to effect a positive change, than complaining about the lack of one. So we set about doing just that and in 2008 Clockenflap was born, taking place in front of 1,500 believers.”

The roots of Hong Kong’s musical renaissance can be traced back to well before the cheekily named festival was first staged in 2008, and Sweeting was again involved. As a member of local band The Academy he’d seen up close how the industry was geared towards megabucks acts and local Cantopop superstars rather than to nurturing new bands. There was also a shortage of smaller venues to make visits cost-effective for less famous overseas acts.

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At the turn of the millennium, and inspired by the success of the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, Sweeting and his business partners Jay Forster and Mike Hill started planning the city’s first festival. Rockit launched in 2003 and, dogged by licencing issues and band cancellations, it folded soon after. But by then the trio had tasted blood.

“In the beginning we just wanted to put on the very best festival we could, whatever the size. We started small because that was what we were able to do, and focused on the details and experience to make it the best small sized festival we could,” explains Sweeting.

Chemical Brothers on a beach, courtesy of Clockenflap
The Chemical Brothers, on a beach somewhere. Photo courtesy of Clockenflap

The path for Clockenflap was crucially paved by Sweeting and the team’s success in fostering a scene in Hong Kong. They’d started booking hip and cult bands and got around the lack of suitable concert venues by hiring an Italian restaurant in the heart of the city and clearing the tables and chairs to form a stage. The first band asked to play in this strictly DIY atmosphere was a little-known British act called The Young Knives.

“My band used to tour around with them a fair bit in the UK, so it was easy to sincerely say to them, ‘I have no idea what’s going to happen, but whatever does, we’re going to be at the start of it, so it’s likely going to be lots of fun’,” Sweeting explains.

The Young Knives agreed, and their one-off gig was followed by other trendy acts such as British Sea Power, Canadian dance artist Caribou and the British experimental band These New Puritans.

“Those shows were right when the momentum started to feel like it might turn and I went from feeling like I was continuously hitting my head on a brick wall to thinking maybe, just maybe, there’s hope,” Sweeting says.

Clockenflap organiser Justin Sweeting. © Clockenflap
Clockenflap organiser Justin Sweeting. © Clockenflap

The project has yet to break even, but Sweeting says the team’s policy of fostering the city’s reputation as a local music hub is helping to generate better returns each year for Clockenflap. For others struggling to make a living from rock in Hong Kong, it has been a financial godsend. When the time came to restart the festival, the organisational pieces were in place, and so was the first headliner: The Young Knives.

The first Clockenflap was held in a concrete public space in the middle of a largely empty housing development called Cyberport. It later expanded into a harbourfront plot earmarked for cultural arts events –the West Kowloon Cultural District. That’s since been closed and the event takes place this year at a prime harbour-facing location in the middle of Hong Kong Island’s central business district.

Sigur Ros, courtesy of Clockenflap.
The music of Sigur Ros does things to your brain. Photo courtesy of Clockenflap

“It’s educated Hong Kong people to pay money to attend music events,” said Chris-B Underground, a former member of the all-girl band Sisters of Sharon who now runs club nights that showcase local talent. “It sounds ironic but, seriously, prior to Clockenflap, people expected free.”

For Sweeting, success comes in seeing bands play: the reason he and his colleagues began promoting gigs in the first place.

“Festivals occupy an important space creatively and culturally for a city, and perhaps even more critically and simply, they are absurd levels of fun,” he says. “We could all do with a bit more fun factor in our lives.”

For the full line-up go to