Sound Of Cities: Hong Kong’s Natural Orchestra Is Pretty ‘Green’
Mention Hong Kong and the image of sprawling skyscrapers, buildings and bustling roads come to mind. It is after all, one of the world’s most prominent megacities, famous primarily for its status as Asia’s financial centre.
Nature has never really been part of the conversation when it comes to Hong Kong. Although, it has to be pointed out that the city boasts some pretty impressive parks, trails and nature reserves.
This “green” image is now being highlighted by Hong Kong native, AK Kan. The sound designer, sound engineer and field recordist has embarked on a project to record and document the soundscape of Hong Kong nature as part of a sound library called, “AK In KK”.
The independent field recording project not only documents the soundscape of Hong Kong's nature but also acts as a sound library of natural ambience for artistic and media usage. The recordings are all presented on a sound map and sound library for easy reference.
Inspired By Nature
According to Kan, the primary inspiration in producing this sonic map of Hong Kong’s natural ambient sounds was sparked after he saw the damage caused by Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018.
“I was shocked and never saw so many fallen trees in one day,” he recalls. “At the same time, the Hong Kong Government was proposing ‘Lantau Tomorrow Vision’, a developmental project constructing artificial islands in the east of Lantau Island.”
Realising that environmental damage could be caused by human or natural disasters, he then decided to start recording and compiling the sound of Hong Kong’s beautiful nature.
“As a sound designer who loves hiking in my hometown, I managed to combine both hobbies into this project,” Kan explains.
“Also, despite being a concrete jungle, over 70% of Hong Kong is green. It is always refreshing and comfortable to visit different natural landscape and hike along the trails.”
AK also realised during the creative process, he discovered that it was hard to find local natural sound effects on the internet. “This is why I made it a point to make good use of the recordings I made, allowing creators to download them as sound effects,” he adds.
The Recording Process
On average Kan spends around 10 hours in total recording and uploading the sound unto the website.
“It’s three to four times the recording duration,” he tells us, adding that a fair bit of time is also spent listening, editing and processing or noise handling each recording.
“I also have to write about its description, input up some metadata for them as well as try to identify the species with my limited knowledge before it is uploaded unto the website.”
To date, Kan has about 50 sounds already uploaded unto “AK In KK”, but he has a pretty healthy supply of recordings in his database at the moment. It will all go up as soon as he finishes updating the website’s backend system.
He admits that he did face certain challenges when capturing his recordings in a busy city like Hong Kong.
“It’s incredibly noisy and crowded and it can be extremely hard to find quiet areas,” he laments.
“This is why I don’t do recording on weekends, because the mountain is full of people. Honestly, I don’t blame them and it is a good thing that more people spend their time with nature.”
Although there are fewer crowds on weekdays, Kan also finds it hard to record for ten minutes continuously without anthrophony – that is the sound from human activities.
“You may not believe it, but the air traffic is so busy in Hong Kong that we usually we hear a plane at three-minute intervals of my recordings.”
He adds, “Gordon Hempton, a pioneer field recordist who fights for silences, said ‘at least 15 minutes continuous, uninterrupted silence is extremely rare in the US and long gone in the Europe’. I totally agree with him in Hong Kong’s situation, after a year of doing field recording.”
Feedback & Collaborations
“AK In KK” has been in existence now for a few years and the field recordist relishes the opportunity in being able to bring his project to life.
“Frankly, it brings a lot to me – knowledge, an identity, a goal, and the things I want to promote, like listening and silence. I have also learnt a lot when I created the website and more to learn about promotion and running a project.” Kan adds.
Kan admits that he is fortunate though. He received grant funding from the HK Art Development Council this year in support of the project – something which has helped see his vision through.
“Frankly, at this stage, I doubt it (the project) can survive on its own, but I am pleased it has survived thus far.
To date, AK has also managed a number of collaborations with Hong Kong partners such as mobile app TrailWatch, who have tapped into his recordings to use as soundtracks for its "Hike And Seek" exhibition.
“I enjoyed working with them,” AK enthuses. “Ultimately, I don’t want the sounds to be archived in the library and get dusted, I am happy to see them being used.”
He also reveals that late last year, the sounds were also used in designing a “Dialogue In The Dark Experience”, which was an immersive journey where eyes cannot see in total darkness.
“I was excited and delighted to create a virtual sonic nature with the recordings. I believe there is a cordial feeling when using local sounds, as it allows people to immerse into the environment a lot easier with sounds we hear daily.”
However, Kan does point out that the concept of a soundscape, especially of nature in Hong Kong, is still relatively new ground for a lot of locals.
“Mostly, the feedback I get is about people finding a newfound aspect and interest in hearing nature and not just simply watching it,” he adds.
“For this, I am very encouraged by the feedback people have given me as well as the interest for further collaborations and support for me to keep going on.”
In a nutshell, Kan believes “AK In KK” satisfies his creative need by serving as a platform to highlight his works, while allowing him to soak in the natural splendour in a concrete jungle like Hong Kong.
“It is akin to immersing myself in a natural orchestra, one that brings surprises to me every second of the way,” he adds. “Being a sound engineer and a hiking lover, it is no one but me to make this happen, and I am glad I did it.”
Cover Image: Alex Azabache/Unsplash
Writer | Richard Augustin
Two decades in journalism but Richard believes he has barely scraped the surface in the field. He loves the scent of a good story and the art of storytelling, two elements that constantly fuel his passion for writing.