The sounds of the city resonate as Hong Kong comes to life through audio mosaic and three voices: a traveler remembers, newscasters rattle off facts and statistics, a young woman recalls a legend from her fading childhood.
Note! Hong Kong Song is produced in German. You'll find the English transcript posted in the "Extra" section below.
Jens Jarisch has spent half his life in Berlin, where he currently works as an independent producer of one-hour radio documentaries. He has squandered valuable years studying literature, occupying himself with random travels to peculiar places all along. Spellbound by the world's sound, he began recording what he found most difficult to grasp, trying to reveal the hidden and make it audible. Jarisch’s work runs to twelve documentaries and has been awarded with several national and international media prizes.
This story is produced in German! You can follow along with the (attractively color-coded) English transcript.
Hong Kong Song received the Grand Prix Marulic 2009 in the Short Forms category.
Listen to the conference session Jens presented in 2008, The Inner Sound of the Outer World.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Jens Jarisch
When did you produce Hong Kong Song, and what was the inspiration?
One of the editors I work for every once in a while, Margot Litten, asked me to contribute to her travelling magazine RadioReisen a story about Hong Kong, knowing that I had recently lived there for two years. Regardless of this I had felt the urge to work up some scattered recordings, a vivid mental picture and a few forlorn feelings I had brought back from Hong Kong, so this was the spur I needed to begin. I only spent two or three weeks conceptualising and producing the piece during the dark Berlin winter in January 2009.
One of the odds and ends that had stayed in my mind from the time living in Hong Kong was the image of the house built with a huge hole into it. (See photo in rotation at top of player.) I had heard various explanations for the extremely expensive hole and found the one that takes it as a fly-through passage for a dragon from an ancient legend very convenient to use as a blank space within the story, a question mark set against all the self-assertive achivements, a silence within the vibrant action of the city. The huge house, which is indeed rather small by Hong Kong standards, is located in Repulse Bay, and also the dragon is as real as any metaphor can be.
Hong Kong Song presents three different voices, braided together (along with careful sound recordings) to paint a portrait of modern Hong Kong. Where did each voice originate?
All three voices have emerged from the dramaturgical obligation to assign each of the quite distinctive narratives to different characters. The first one is my own voice, and view, that I use to picture manifold observations. The selective or spotty style this text was rendered in is partly due to an attempt to rely on the present ambient sound to guide listeners through the city, only providing some hints to trigger the adequate associations, and partly due to Radiohead’s song "Let Down," which I listened to sometimes when I went for walks.
The second voice, that of the young woman, gives an exemplary account of a situation residents of Hong Kong might undergo when their closest friends or partners, or they themselves, become absorbed by their work, money and status. The young woman marvels about as much as she regrets the way her life has developed, and I heard her story from many if not the majority of the people I got to know in this energetic city. Success and solitude go together in Hong Kong, especially for women. My favourite radio friend, Dorit Blau, spoke these lines.
The third voice is the one of classical news presenters whose text consists of bits and pieces of factual information that construct an important background to contextualize the content from the two other voices. To strengthen the impression of listening to sober news I asked three actual news casters to read the text, apportioned the recordings among the three different parts of Hong Kong Song and sent them through a filter to make them sound as if they came from a loudspeaker within the acoustical environment of the city.
This allocation of voices could be seen as a recourse to and modification of the traditional three narrative positions: limited, first-person and omniscient narrator. I have always found it important not to stick too strictly to the simple concepts of the mind, but to also let the irrational feelings enter, disrupt and undermine my own theory or construct. So the first voice who in the beginning only creates untinged pictures with single words like 'motorways' suddenly is also heard with quite an arbitrary remark such as 'young, dynamic, successful, lonely' as if this was an impartial observation too. The essential story of Hong Kong Song lies within the tension that is created in between of the three voices.
Hong Kong Song also sounds very personal somehow. How did your sense of Hong Kong shift or evolve while you were there? Did you hear / see / feel the city differently by the time you left?
Contrary to the impression one might get, Hong Kong Song is my declaration of love to this singular city, though in some other respect it is also a reckoning with what I experienced there. In the beginning I was thrilled by the elegance and peacefulness which people share even when they are under pressure. Accessability, efficiency and reliability, friendliness and discretion make it easy to live in this city and only gradually could I also sense the enormous restraint most of the people put on themselves. Traditional Chinese family values clash with the isolation that may ensue from personal career management. Hong Kong's social structures support an individualistic lifestyle, yet everybody dreams of having a family. Many men buy a part time family from mainland China and keep their single apartment at the same time, whereas many Hong Kong women just stay single.
Hong Kong Song is most certainly about Hong Kong, but does the heart of the story also apply to (or "beat in") other cities you've experienced, and young adults elsewhere, who are finding their way forward from childhood into the world?
Yes, the story is in many respects that of a society with strong progress and weak emotions. It is tempting to hush up your worries and doubts if you are rewarded by wealth or threatened by failure. Nevertheless in many places of the world the youth stare in bewilderment upon the questionable achievements of their mothers and fathers. The imbalance of fast growing and slow learning can be found all along the civilisation process.
Where did you find the beautiful piano music that plays throughout?
Art and especially music in Hong Kong is a wild mix of cultures, and I searched for one simple and clear theme that would represent all of it, the Oriental and the Western, the traditional and the modern, the thoughtful and the energetic. Since nothing I found fit exactly right I asked a musician I had worked with before in Berlin, Philipp Bellinger, to listen to popular melancholic songs from Hong Kong on YouTube and he miraculously came up with a composition of his own that matched exactly the mood I had hoped to convey.
This is much shorter than your usual feature work, which tends to run nearly fifty minutes. What were the limitations of working with much less time? And what were the freedoms?
Since Hong Kong Song was to be my own independent production from the start I had no time precept I would be expected to meet, and for once I wanted the story itself to define the length. There is always an ideal time in which a story is told best, and I think I was just lucky to hit it. Too much air time can trouble a story in the same way as too little of it, but generally I think it is harder the less space is available. One advantage of the shorter form is that noone expects you to be conclusive in nine and a half minutes. Here it is fine just to touch a topic and not to explain everything.
And where does Hong Kong Song fit in the story of your own radio-making? What did you learn from producing the feature? And what's next?
For me the effect and success of Hong Kong Song is a lesson. I always knew you could do in radio what you'd never dare in print: spread words, give ungrammatical clues, condense thoughts. But I had never really implemented such fragmented language before. I am quite surprised that this works so well for others, and that the message comes across undisturbed by wide omissions, in fact, that a story can be told without really telling it. Next I am back to the nearly-one-hour listening challenge. It is an unpleasant work about yet another down side of progress: the dealings with e-waste.
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