“I had a grip-boy who tried to take his life last year”: Hong Kong Creative Industry Petitions For Financial Safety Net

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Image: The Underground

‘Creative Members of the Hong Kong Creative Industries’, a coalition of performing arts professionals from theatre, music, dance, design, wedding events and more have banded together to lobby the government for compensation in the wake of last week’s sudden social distancing restrictions.

When the government announced urgent social distancing regulations on 5 January to nip Omicron in the bud, many industries braced for a dry month ahead. Bars and pubs without food licenses closed at midnight on 7 January, and restaurants have been unable to serve dine-in customers past 6 PM. Restaurants that only operate dinner service are seeing funds dry up.

Just days before restrictions began, Staunton’s Wine Bar & Cafe, a popular eatery in Soho that opened in 1997 quietly announced its closure to regulars. On 6 January, La Rotisserie, a decade-old French takeout with branches across the northern shores of the Island also closed citing difficulties staying afloat under constantly shifting circumstances.

Other industries were “shocked and angry”, says Nelson Ip, chairman of the Federation of Beauty Industry. “We feel that every time it’s us and 10 or so other sectors that have to make sacrifices”.

But one industry whose direct impact from restrictions is less clear, yet massively compounded, with sometimes life-threatening results, is that of the performing arts.

A Diverse but Under-represented Industry

In a new petition to the government, the ‘Creative Members of the Hong Kong Creative Industries’, a coalition of professionals from an otherwise related yet distant industry, calls for financial support.

The petition mentions how the F&B industry was able to quickly lobby for support. The diversity of the performing arts industry and lack of centralised representation makes that hard to do. This is further compounded by the unstable nature of the industry, largely working on project-based funding or payments.

Chris B of The Underground and Musician’s Foundation claims on the petition page that the government has consistently ignored the “diversity” of the performing arts industry which has led to inadequate support in previous compensation.

“The arts and culture industries have been battered in the past two years, during which, for 16 months, no live performances were allowed. Live shows resumed in stages from June 2021 onwards, including music, theatre, dance, drama, plays, concerts and more,” she writes in the petition.

She also goes on to explain:

“Previous government support schemes compensated only some losses resulting from limited types of cancelled performances. That approach is inadequate as it doesn’t take into account:

(1) The diversity of the sector, which includes live performances at public and private venues, festivals, conventions and seminars, theme parks, hotels, weddings and banquets, bars and clubs and education and community outreach work;

(2) The fixed nature of the costs many creative companies face (e.g., loss of rehearsal income for studios and venues, additional storage space and extended storage time etc.);

(3) Ongoing losses if shutdowns are extended (as it was last year), and;

(4) Lost opportunities resulting from projects not coming to fruition (companies have had to cut staff as part of cost-cutting measures) with many companies closing due to inability to work and also because international performers can no longer travel easily to Hong Kong.”

Black Box Theatre Transverse Stage
Image: LCSD

Lost Revenue, lost jobs, lost lives

While it is easy to dismiss the industry as only needing to bear the grunt of large performances, such as those at the theatre, or at the coliseum being cancelled, the damage is far wider-reaching, especially for smaller companies that do not have direct government funding.

Mike Leeder, representing the film industry writes, “The majority of local film industry workers are freelancers who have suffered a significant loss of work, income and job security due to the restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 […] Although we recognise the necessity of rules, they need to be workable.”

At the moment, government regulations differ for professional fields and venues. Audience numbers are always limited even at LCSD venues where seats are grouped into fours and the rest cordoned off with red tape. Musical performers must wear masks and have physical separation from the audience. In performances where masks cannot be worn (such as in some theatrical performances and orchestral woodwind players), performers must undergo COVID testing every week. These issues are further complicated by many pop music performers working primarily in bars that are closed as part of restrictions.

The lack of consistent support has created serious financial, sometimes life-threatening, repercussions.

“I had a grip-boy who tried to take his life last year after months of suffering and being jobless,” says Babe Tree, an audio and lighting director “We pay our taxes and abide by the laws of the HKSAR, sadly though, neither assistance or incentives are ever offered to us”.

In 2020, Chris B conducted a study on the impact of COVID-19 on musicians and found that out of close to 650 participants, 23.5% were having to borrow money to make ends meet and 20.3% were planning on leaving Hong Kong. 4.6% were threatened with eviction and in extreme cases, 2.8% had become homeless. She also found that the anti-epidemic fund offered in the first outbreak did not take into account many freelancers who either did not have up to date MPF accounts or were performing over retirement age.

Kylie Chow, a wedding planner and musician echoes Chris’ findings from last year.

“The whole industry is terrified. During the 16-month industry-wide closure from 2019 -2020, we saw many situations where industry workers were unable to pay rent, some were evicted and others literally starving.

“Please don’t let this happen again.”

Edit: Previous version this article incorrectly referred to Chris B as the founder of the Musician’s Union instead of Musicians Foundation

Public contacts for ‘Creative Members of the Hong Kong Creative Industries’

Musicians Foundation / The Underground HK

Founder – Chris B (包華絲) +852-9486 4648

Aurora Theatre
Founder – Nicole Garbellini +852-9141 4544

Film Industry Sector

Casting Director Mike Leeder +852-94879142

Hong Kong Music Union
Chairman – Lito Castillo +852-9099 7259

Event Production Sector
Skip Moy +852-9027 7889

Dance Sector
Nicole Tam (譚立辰) +852-5126 1892

Wedding Function Coordinator
Kylie Chow (周潔兒) +852-9104 8140

Nine Dragons School of Samba / Zouk Hong Kong

Founder – Simon Williams, +852-9869 5905

Audio & Lighting Sector
Babe Tree (鄧鎧汶) +852-9722 9390