17 December 2015

First-ever Census of Hong Kong Street Performers:
Existing policy fails to empower full-time performers may cause overcrowding in some districts

The Department of Psychology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) has recently conducted the first-ever Hong Kong street performers census. The census project reached a total of 229 street performers, from which an estimate of 300 street performers has been made for future reference. The project findings showed only a minority of interviewed street performers rely solely on street performance or ‘busking’ for income, despite the increasing number of street performers in recent years (see Table 1). 

The findings of this census project reflect the lack of effective policy on street performance. The government needs to review the relevant laws and regulations to facilitate good street performance practice in the local community, thereby displaying Hong Kong as a metropolis with artistic and cultural standards. 

The census was conducted from 8 August to 18 September 2015. Street-intercept surveys were conducted on the weekends, mainly in the night time, among the street performers in Tsim Sha Tsui, Mong Kok, Causeway Bay, Central and West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) (see Table 2). An online survey was then conducted amongst street performers referred by the interviewees of the street-intercept survey. A total of 188 complete responses were collected: 132 males and 56 females. More than 95% street performers were local residents. As for performance type, 90% was music, 7% was dance, 2% was acrobatics, and 1% was theatre. The majority of the participants reported that they performed in Tsim Sha Tsui, followed by Wan Chai, Central and Western, and Mong Kok. Other less popular but notable districts included Sha Tin, Kowloon City, Tuen Mun, Wong Tai Sin and Tai Po. 

The findings also revealed that there were diversified views on receiving donations among the performers. Only a minority of the performers reported that street performance was their sole income source. More than half of them considered street performance as a hobby and/or entertainment, and only 10.7% of them performed twice a week or more (see Table 3). Some said that they regarded street performance as a way to promote local art and culture and to fight for the right to use public space. 

The street performers thought that their rights were not fully protected under the existing law. They worried that the relevant regulations and legal terms were vague. It might distort their intended meaning of ‘voluntary donations’ that was supposed to be ‘self-directed’ by the audience themselves. Moreover, some street performers were pessimistic about WKCD’s latest street performance scheme (i.e., licensing system), which is still on trial. They worried that such a street performance scheme might discourage and neglect street performers’ needs for ‘mobility’ and ‘improvisation’ which were regarded as the essence and the true spirit of street performance culture. 

Street performers were well aware of the problems arising from the use of public space, such as certain areas becoming overcrowded. Some pointed out the poor conducts in sound level control and the resulting nuisance complaints by pedestrians, shops and other public space users. Some questioned the overall quality of street performance and thought that street performers needed to have a better and shared understanding of street performance culture. 

Prof. Winton Au, Associate Professor of Psychology and Mr. Robbie Ho, research postgraduate at CUHK said ‘Although only a small minority of street performers consider street performance as a sole income source, this does not necessarily mean there is no an urgent need to formulate a law to regulate  donations to street performance. The existing policy may not be able to protect the rights of street performers enough and help them build a social status that is supposed to be professional and considerate of the local community. If street performers were welcomed by different local districts to perform while legally enjoying the voluntary donations from the neighbourhood and without being worried about receiving complaints, some of the public space issues in certain overcrowded areas could  be eased. Future researches should try to define “street performance” and related concepts in the context of Hong Kong, but that is not to say that “street performance” entails any absolute meaning, or that an existing policy from another country can be directly replicated in Hong Kong. It is just that an applicable definition of street performance would support future discussion and policy making.’ 

Main findings of Hong Kong street performers census:

(1)     Street performers’ employment status and attitude to donations

Participants were asked how often they put out a box or instrument case to collect donations from the audience: 14.9% ‘never’, 19.7% ‘seldom’, 22.9% ‘about half the time’, 16% ‘usually’, and 26.6% ‘always’. In addition, 39% of the participants had a full-time job besides street performing, 35.2% had a part-time job, 25.8% had no other job. As for donations taking, 59.6% agreed that street performers can accept donations, 19.1% tended to agree, 21.3% were neutral, and no participants disgreed (or tended to disagree).

Among those who had a full-time job (71 participants), 46.5% agreed that street performers can accept donations; among those who had a part-time job (64 participants), 71.9% agreed; and among those who had no other job (47 participants), 66% agreed. 

For those who agreed that street performers can accept donations, the following reasons were given1: 1. street performing is a profession and donations are used to cover the costs and expenses of a performance (63 responses); 2. donations are ways for the audience to show respect and recognition of street performers (59 responses); 3. donations are voluntary (44 responses); 4. donations are ways for the audience to encourage the local street performance culture (39 responses); and 5. making a donation is a natural response (23 responses). Please refer to Table 5 for quotation of participants’ responses. 

(2)     Why street performing?

There are personal and impersonal reasons for street performing. Personal reasons included: 1. hobby and entertainment (104 responses); 2. learning and experience (24 responses); 3. income source (14 responses); and 4. self-promotion (10 responses). Impersonal reasons included: 1. sharing and promoting the arts and culture (57 responses); 2. providing the general public with entertainment (14 responses); 3. facilitating and enriching the city’s social and communal life (13 responses); and 4. demonstrating the rights to public space (5 responses). Please refer to Table 6 for quotation of participants’ responses.

(3)     Other concerns about Hong Kong street performance

Participants were mostly concerned about the policy on and culture of Hong Kong street performance. Issues concerning policy included: 1. lack of space for street performance (45 responses); 2. complaints and (subsequent) police intervention (28 responses); 3. legality of street performance, such as its definition in the existing law (25 responses); 4. policy on street performance, such as a licensing system (25 responses); and 5. government’s attitude (17 responses). Issues concerning culture included: 1. street performance quality (20 responses); 2. audiences’ responses (19 responses); 3. the public’s understanding and recognition of street performance (19 responses); 4. mutual respect among public space users (including street performers themselves) (15 responses); and 5. development of street performance culture (15 responses). Please refer to Table 7 for quotation of participants’ responses.