Junk Boats and English Boys: Damon Albarn’s Hong Kong

by Karen Cheung

When the lights dimmed my friend whispered, okay, go now, now! and the four of us raced through rows of seats, hurdling cordons and tearing past security guards. Dozens of others caught on and followed suit, and soon we were a procession storming to the front. Two monster-sized ice cream cones in slime green and bubblegum pink framed each side of the stage. The concert hall looked like a bad Halloween acid trip. By the time the first chord exploded through the room, we had already camouflaged ourselves among the HKD1,080 ticket holders. There were thousands in the crowd, at least half of them my parents’ age. Neon octagonal panels flashed behind Blur as they bashed their instruments. The band played “Tender” and the fans sang oh my baby, oh my baby over and over like a broken record, out of tune and screechy and euphoric. I screamed the lyrics until I wanted to throw up. There was a boy I was supposed to come to the show with, but we broke up. The set ended and Blur didn’t play my song: Over the white cliffs of Dover / And when you push me over / Don’t bury me I’m not worth anything.

I became a Blur fan out of peer pressure. It was the early 2010s, but the indieheads in Hong Kong still thought it was cool to debate Oasis versus Blur1, even though most of us were toddlers during the Britpop battle of 1995. Because I’m a sucker for feeling like part of a community, I acted as though the debate was personally important to me. I picked a side: Blur. To this day I am committed to that arbitrary decision, except now it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. My partner, who subscribes to the class-warfare angle of the Britpop wars, thinks the Gallaghers are working-class heroes and the members of Blur are art school twats. The only song he ever really listened to was “Parklife.” (We’ve kept up an ongoing pretend-fight about this for over four years, and when I told him I was writing a piece about Blur, he said, Whatever.) But the leap was easy for me because I’ve loved Gorillaz since the age of thirteen, when MTV showed me a music video of Noodle strumming a guitar on a floating island in the sky as a windmill churned.

Sad Damon Albarn made me feel things that the rebel-dreamer Liam Gallagher couldn’t: Maybe in time you’d want to be mine and This is a low but it won’t hurt you and Nothing is wrong I just slip away and I am gone. As an exchange student in the United Kingdom, I had strutted down the streets in the London summer listening to Oasis’ “Live Forever.” But when I took a twenty-pound Megabus up to Scotland, quiet fields and empty towns whirring past me through the window, I sullenly put on Blur’s “No Distance Left to Run”: my preferred state of being. 

In 2013, a photo of a sleepy Damon standing in a train carriage in Hong Kong went viral on social media. He takes the MTR just like us commoners! This was taken after Blur’s first gig in Hong Kong, when Damon had told the audience: “So we have a week in Hong Kong, and we thought it would be a good time to try to record another record, so we’re going to make one here in Hong Kong.” But a while later, he told NME that they didn’t finish the record because Hong Kong was “too hot.”2

And then, in 2015, they dropped The Magic Whip, a Britpop comeback album inspired by Hong Kong. It was their first release in over a decade. In the years between Think Tank (2003) and The Magic Whip, Damon focused on Gorillaz, Alex made cheese and wrote a memoir about Blur, Graham got sober, and Dave unsuccessfully ran for MP. The album cover features a neon-outlined ice-cream cone with the words 模糊 (the literal translation of “blur”) and 魔鞭 (“magic whip”). The “magic whip” is the name of a firework; Albarn found its wrapper in his scrapbook while working on the lyrics. The whip, he explained, refers to political control, and magic is something that is “prevalent in the far East.”

Local music listeners were flattered: Hong Kong loved Blur, and they seemed to love us back. British pop and rock were big during the colonial era: Depeche Mode, The Clash, and Siouxsie and the Banshees all played at the Baptist University’s famed Academic Community Hall. Back then, we were so desperate that whenever Britain threw scraps at us, we cheered with the fanfare reserved for our favorite sports teams. I grew up in Hong Kong during a time when we worshipped Chris Patten as a deity of freedom, when we forced a British accent in English class. With Damon Albarn, the relationship was at least mildly reciprocal. For the release of The Magic Whip, the band collaborated with local artist KongKee on a comic strip, Travel to Hong Kong with Blur, which worked at the intersection of a nostalgic and futuristic Hong Kong.3 And in the eponymous thirty-minute documentary about the making of the album, the band said that they had recorded it in a windowless studio in a nondescript building on Nanking Street. They said claustrophobic about five times. A comment underneath the video reads: “I am a HongKonger and I feel so proud that Blur made their new album in my city!” Another comment posted in 2020 under the Blur documentary New World Towers (which opens with a supercut of scenes from Hong Kong, including a man holding a sign #我要真普選 [“I want true universal suffrage”]) said: “Thank you good sir. #StandwithHongKong.” Every time a white person does something for Hong Kong, we thank them profusely for caring about us even when it’s loaded in painful clichés and sentimentality.4

No one could really name a single song off The Magic Whip within a year of its release. The members’ interviews also revealed that they lacked self-awareness of how their “Hong Kong” album could be perceived.5 When an interviewer asked Damon Albarn about these comments and the ensuing criticism, he brushed it off: “Well, I’ve read Edward Said, and I’m not sure I think that that criticism’s fair. I just think it’s a fucking load of old bollocks to say this record has element of that in it. It’s just about my experience in Hong Kong. We could have been in Cape Town or Addis Ababa or La Paz or Guatemala City…we just got together where we did. I can’t be having all of that.” Albarn says that the songs he likes “all sort of have that geographic thing.” He compared his period in Hong Kong to David Bowie’s time in Berlin, but Bowie lived in Berlin for three years, whereas it’s unclear whether Albarn’s ever spent more than a couple of weeks in Hong Kong. After that five-day recording session in Kowloon, the band put aside the project. Then, Albarn returned to the city alone to write lyrics: on that trip he stayed for one-and-a-half days. He’s also “been there a lot anyway through Gorillaz.” Either way, Damon Albarn’s “experience in Hong Kong” was just like every other tourist’s experience in Hong Kong.

These days, when my music player shuffles to songs from the album, I plunge my hand into my bag immediately to fish out my phone and jab skip on the touch screen. I hate The Magic Whip, but not because it is problematic. I’m the queen of problematic faves. It takes Mark Kozelek-levels of accusations6 for me to disown a favorite. I still listen to The Smith’s music in spite of Morrissey.7 I hate the album because I wanted so badly to be moved. Hong Kong had brought Blur back together for a new record, and the cityscape was a metaphor for Albarn and Graham Coxon’s relationship. I wanted Albarn to pull it off. Instead, the lyrics make me want to get into a van with all four members of the band and drive them straight into the harbor. I got away for a little while / But then it came back much harder / Cause I’m on a ghost ship driving my heart, Hong Kong turns Albarn into every white person passing through the city who feels the impulse to make art about tortured relationships and “dystopian levels of personal isolation and angst and fear” (his words),8 reducing the rest of us into dried husks of people inhabiting someone else’s dreamspace. “Ong Ong” is the working title of a GarageBand demo by Albarn—and when he Googled the name he found “absolutely nothing” (actually, it’s a Hokkien surname), only, of course, that it alludes to Hong Kong, he realized with glee. Another is just named “Pyongyang,” which is a wholly different depressing Communist city. (The song was based on his solo visit to North Korea.)

The Magic Whip adopts the aesthetics and proper nouns of Hong Kong, forcefully wedging names of districts into the lyrics: Eight o’clock Kowloon emptiness, handle itand On the slow boat to Lantau through misty seas and Mirrorball on a Jordan train / I was under sea then up for air again / Ocean Park where the seagulls cry / I remember flying dragons too and The fight for Happy Valley / Sadly the line broke. These scenes evoke the melancholia of Albarn’s usual lyrics, but there is no engagement with the specificity of these localities—whereas for instance 1994’s “Clover over Dover” references the history of Dover’s white cliffs as a prime suicide site, as well as an English nursery rhyme and a wartime song, “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover.” He has asserted that his lyrics on Happy Valley could be a reference to “the protests in Happy Valley,”9 but it’s unclear what he’s referring to—there was no major protest site in the area during the Umbrella Movement in 2014. (Did he mean Causeway Bay?)  ’Cause there are too many of us / In tiny houses here and there, presumably inspired by the recording sessions in the rooms that were “claustrophobic,” is the only sentiment that resonates with the city’s dwellers. Lyrics are a concise and abstract art form, so I wasn’t expecting a thesis on Hong Kong. Still, the album contains nothing but scenes one didn’t even need to be in the city to write: you just have to look at some postcards and the MTR map.

When you don’t know a place, you fall back on the same images over and over again.10 Albarn has written about junk boats in his songs on three occasions: By the empty harbor where the junk boat phantoms float and If you’re caught up in the gales on the junk boat sea / I wanna be with you and Lord hear me now / Junk boats and English boys. The last line isn’t from The Magic Whip. It’s an earlier Gorillaz song called “Hong Kong” from their 2007 album D-sides, which consists mostly of b-side tracks. “Hong Kong” opens with a guzheng line that overlays the rest of the track, in the tradition of bands like The Beatles that pretend including instruments from another culture makes the track a tribute to the foreign place. Another lyric from the song is Here on the knighting floor / the neon lights make me numb—another instance of how writers settle for the most basic visual signifiers of place when writing about the non-Western world, a nostalgic fantasy of Hong Kong that pervades even as actual neon signs disappeared from our streets and waters. Albarn was not interested in getting to know the city itself; he barely gave it an opportunity to compete with the images that populate the city of his imagination. In the end, the city lost out to the fantastical version he conjured from afar.

American and European music publications, in their reviews of The Magic Whip, disregarded the Hong Kong influence of the album. To them, the neon aesthetic was just dressing; it had no substantial weight in the songwriting or music itself. Instead, they focused on the more pressing question of whether Britpop still has a place in the mid-2010s, and if Blur’s still got it.11 I felt more embarrassed by how local publications fawned over the band. One article opens with the line, “Blur appear to have discovered their inner Chinese. The indie-rock veterans, who came to prominence during the 1990s Britpop era, might still be widely regarded as the personification of Englishness, but for their new album the band looked East for inspiration.” A Hong Kong cultural magazine put Blur on their cover, with the tagline The music of our times. A veteran music critic wrote, “[Damon Albarn and Blur] really came all the way to Hong Kong to record at the local Avon Studios, which reflects how he has a soft spot for the city.” We go wild for scraps.

But I still love Blur. The common refrain in the comments sections of music criticism is, well if you don’t like it just don’t listen to it. I don’t listen to that album: I pretend it doesn’t exist. But in the midst of the pandemic, I found the full recording of the 2015 Blur concert in Hong Kong, when they were on the promotional tour for The Magic Whip, and watched the whole set. It turned out that, as a defence mechanism, my brain had erased all memory of experiencing the album live. I had forgotten how Albarn greeted us with “Good evening, we’re going to sing some songs about your town,” and that he opened with “Go Out.” Five years later, the kitschy ice cream cones were still jarring, but for once, the songs on The Magic Whip didn’t bother me. All I could think about was what it was like to be at that live show: breathless from our mad dash to the stage, the serotonin still drumming through our bodies, we danced in a room with strangers who all knew the words to our favorite songs.

1. I’m referring mostly to the Facebook page Zenegeist, run by a group of angst-filled Hong Kongers who as of 2020 still post about Oasis and Blur; some of their posts about Britpop are pretty great. This year, they ran a “Favouritest British Band” contest on their Facebook, where they solicited votes through Facebook reactions, and it ultimately came down to the Beatles and Radiohead. Radiohead won.

2. Pitchfork: “Damon Albarn Says New Blur Record “May Never Come Out,” Band Didn’t Finish Because It Was “Too Hot” Outside.”

3. KongKee did an excellent job and explained the aesthetics of the album better than Blur did themselves.

4. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Hong Kong Never Sleeps poem read-aloud project, which includes lines like “A beauty in the orient / A smiling dragon that breathes.”

5. The Quietus: “This Is A Low: Blur, Asia & Cultural Appropriation.”

6. Pitchfork: “Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon Accused of Sexual Misconduct by Three Women.” Kozelek has “publicly and unconditionally deny” the allegations, but he also has had a history of misogynistic comments and behavior, see Guardian: “I interviewed Mark Kozelek. He called me a ‘bitch’ on stage.”

7. Guardian: “Bigmouth Strikes Again and Again: Why Morrissey Fans Feel So Betrayed.”

8. “Blur: New World Towers.”

9. The Quietus: “Who On Earth Are Blur?

10. Hong Kong writer Nicholas Wong once told me in an interview, on certain kinds of writers in Hong Kong who exoticize the city: “These kinds of imagery have already been exhausted after all these years. The shoe-shining boys in Central 80 years ago and those on Chater now are the same—what’s the point of writing it when there’s no reinvention of perspective? When there’s no new angle, is there value for it to remain in the literary circle?”

11. Pitchfork: “Blur’s always been puckish in spirit, its greatest gift the identification and gleeful subversion of listener expectations, and in moments like these it re-emerges, untarnished by the passage of time.”

Karen Cheung is a nonfiction editor of Cicada. Her work has appeared in the New York TimesForeign PolicyThe OffingThe Shanghai Literary Review, and elsewhere.