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Temple Street lounge singers are still clinging to the stage

By Johanna Chan, Edith Chung & Gloria Li 

On a typical mid-week evening, the music lounge would be packed full of people. Soft coloured lights would bounce around the room to the rhythm of the music played on stage. As the singer began her performance, heads would turn and some audience members would sing along to the familiar melody. As the tune comes to an end, there would be rapturous applause as happy customers rushed forward to put their tips in a box in front of the stage. The singer would smile graciously, give a small bow and thank her patrons for their generosity. As the night wore on laughter, conversation and song would resonate around the club.

Such was the scene in veteran lounge singer Eva Wong’s glory days. As she recalls it, Wong lets out a heavy sigh and says those days – when she could make over a HK$1,000 a night – are long gone.

Hong Kong had a vibrant live music scene in the 1960s, with singers entertaining audiences in up-market restaurants, nightclubs and night markets. Young women would sing at stalls on Temple Street, providing entertainment for passersby and picking up tips. Businessmen saw this as an opportunity and began moving stalls indoors, transforming them into today’s lounges.

Temple Street singing lounges still preserve much of the lifestyle, music and local nightlife culture from that time.

Hoi Ying, a singer at the Cantonese Lounge remembers how nervous she was the first time she stepped onto the stage to sing, how her hands trembled as she held the microphone. But she also remembers how the audience had cheered for her and how patrons came forward to leave tips. That was nearly ten years ago. These days, Hoi Ying no longer feels stage fright but neither does she feel excited when people give her tips. She only feels the increasing pressure of trying to make ends meet.

Hoi Ying says when she first started singing, she could make upwards of several hundred dollars from performing for a few hours. Now, she says there are nights where she makes less than HK$ 100 in an evening.

She explains singers’ earnings come solely from tips, of which a large portion is handed back to the lounge owners. “Singing a song means paying HK$100 site fees. And the boss will take away 20 per cent of our tips,” Ho Ying says. “Now the business environment is not good, which puts pressure on us.”

She believes the scene is dying because fewer people are frequenting song lounges and those who do are often not there for the music.

There are those who like to sit back and enjoy the performances. But as customers can do whatever they like in the lounges, some treat it as a chance to catch up with friends, others to play mah-jong, games with dice, or even  a chance to flirt with the singers.

There are also those who treat the lounges as a bar and smuggle in bottles of beer and liquor.  Mr. Lui is one of them. The 58 year-old visits the lounges and stays until dawn every night. He frequently spends thousands of dollars on tips and alcohol. He has friends in Temple Street who drink with him, and he will only grab a cab to go home when he is drunk.

Mr. Cheng is another regular customer, but one who goes for the music. He treats it like a hobby. To him going to a song lounge it is just like any other kind of entertainment. Others may spend their cash on gambling, he would rather pay for live-music. He says listening to music is a relaxing and healthy hobby and he always comes to the lounges when he is free.

Although the customer base is shrinking, new singers still start at the lounges, attracted by the flexible hours and relatively easy way to make earn some extra income.

Fong Ting, who became a part-time singer three years ago, says the hours are very convenient for her, “I only need to work two to three hours every night and sometimes I could earn a few hundred dollars just by singing in one club.”

Fong Ting says there are difficulties in every job, and singing is relatively easy and profitable compared to other jobs.  However she admits there are fewer and fewer customers in recent years, and there is little they can do about it as most patrons are retirees. Youngsters have no interest in these old clubs, she says, describing her career as a “sunset industry”.

Watch below for a performance from one of the singers from Tokyo Lounge: 

The veteran lounge singer Eva Wong, who now owns her own club, has little patience or respect for singers like Fong Ting who are in it for the money.

“When money is involved, the approach and heart change,” she says. “You’ve twisted (the performance) into something else entirely.”

Wong says she opened Tokyo Lounge two years ago in order to continue her singing career after many clubs she sung in started going out of business. Today, her singing lounge is one of seven still operating on Temple Street. Wong once envisioned her lounge as a grand and luxurious place, she saw herself performing with a live four-man band to an adoring audience,

“When you’re singing and the audience listens to you singing for them, that response you get from their reaction, oh that feeling,” she enthuses.

But the reality of operating a business in a fading industry quickly caught up with her. Wong’s dreams were quickly dashed as she shouldered countless financial burdens. “It is really hard when you are on Temple Street, no matter how enthusiastic you are, reality will smack you on your head.”

As her business depends on tips from individual customers, she is constantly worried about how many will turn up on any given night. Regardless of the turnout, she must find the money every month to pay the rent, the keyboard accompanist, and the cleaners.

Performers are another source of uncertainty. Accompanists are getting scarcer, but more singers are joining the industry. As the singers are not required to call in before coming in to work, Wong is sometimes caught short. Once, she sang alone for an hour to keep the lounge open.

Despite the uncertainties and financial worries – veterans like Wong find themselves unable to leave the stage. For her, and many other performers, the reason they entered the industry in the first place was because singing is their passion,

“I am a singer at heart,” she says. “If you don’t let me sing, what else can I do?”

Edited by Yi Yeung