[Note: Here’s a piece in the Hong Kong Free Press about the street that takes into account some of the behind the scenes licensing and political dimensions of this particular public space.]
Here is an early impression of the street karaoke I’ve been watching for several weeks in Hong Kong, an outstanding example of participatory music.
Mong Kok, which means “crowded corner” earns its name as one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with 350,000 people per square mile. Each Saturday night and all day on Sunday, Sai Yeung Choi street is closed to cars and turned over to pedestrians. The heart of the action is karaoke, but there are also fortune tellers, artists, jugglers, political protestors, street food vendors, and so on.
Here’s the basic approach: every 100 feet or so for five long city blocks, there’s another setup: a PA hooked up to a car battery (thankfully no gas powered generators), a tablet computer on a music stand, a wireless microphone or two, and a small folding table for a music player. A performer will start to sing and often a crowd forms a large circle to listen. Sometime of the performers sing for dancing, with a few reliable dance areas. A few of the places include a full band.
The scene is acoustically chaotic—one can typically hear two or three groups at once, and sometimes a particular group’s PA can be heard for a whole block—at one point I heard “Smoke on the Water” and Cantonese opera from adjoining groups. And there is a constant flow of pedestrians squeezing past. In all there are several dozen groups set up. Tipping is accepted, but it seems ancillary to the overall experience, which is to come out and make music together. Many in the audience will sing or dance along with songs that they know, while others sit on a small number of plastic seats. Some bring a picnic dinner, and you can see one photo below of a DJ who brought his small dog.
The gallery of photos captures some of the flavor and spirit. The closest I have come to this in the USA would be the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival back before Katrina (although alcohol is not very visible at these events). Note that, as with many participatory cultures, the full age and ability spectrum is present as full participants. The whole thing is wonderful and beautiful.