Concluding remarks and discussion
An urban soundscape is an acoustic phenomenon, carrying the histories, memories, and cultures of a particular urban place or community. One question central to all case studies and audio files is: do the soundscapes represent the city?
To quote Catherine Guastavino’s words (2006: 950): "the ideal urban soundscape reflects life!" The locals are generally the most qualified people to which the question can be addressed, as they are continually exposed to the sonic events of a city. As a resident of Bangkok and Hong Kong for various stretches of time, I collected audio footage first-hand, while the contextual information is based on existing literature and online research. The selection of representative soundscapes is largely based on personal aural experiences, especially in Hong Kong, my hometown. As for Bangkok, the knowledge of the locality rests largely on my past experiences as resident. Subjectivity and bias cannot be eradicated in the apprehension of the urban soundscape. As Elen Fluegge (2011) points out, “it is tricky to make qualitative claims about the soundscape of an area in part because two people sharing common geographical space might not share the same sound space at all.” It is reasonable to assume that the representational value of recorded soundscapes requires further examination. The reasoning process accompanying the collected sounds can lead us beyond materialistic features into a further investigation of their socio-cultural contexts. Through the accumulation of individual audio documentations, the fundamental characteristics of urban soundscapes might be consolidated into a collective aural memory. In other words, the case studies presented in this article form a beginning, not the end, of this type of research.
The representational value of an urban soundscape can be complicated by its historical and cultural context. In the case studies of Khao San Road and Daiso Store, the presence of foreign music cultures can be heard as a highly invasive element. One does not need any professional knowledge to recognize that this music originated outside Bangkok and even Thailand. If one were to build a sound archive for Bangkok, these certainly do not represent the sounds of the city in terms of endemic Thai culture. But in a broader cultural context, they do reflect the diversity of sounds and the aural dominance of foreign cultures in some urban locations within the city. At the same time, imported cultures of the past might become the local cultures of the future. The midnight mass found in the Catholic Church of Macau and the Mor Lam street performance heard at Sathorn Pier in Bangkok are among the best examples of “localized” imported urban sound phenomena. Local auditory culture can also emanate from colonial infrastructures of the past, such as the double-decker tramways of Hong Kong. Some urban sounds can be traced entirely to local agencies, but void of ties to the local history of the city, such as the live music performances at the Artbox Bangkok Container Flea Market. There are clearly ambiguities when defining the localness of urban soundscapes.
To quote Freek Colombijn’s (2007) words, “the anthropological difficulty [...] lies in the question of what sounds mean to the local people.” A similar difficulty exists when deciding which urban soundscape should be chosen to represent Bangkok and Hong Kong. If a soundscape issues from completely foreign events, does it mean that they are irrelevant to auditory research?
Even if an urban soundscape consists exclusively of foreign elements, with no local sounds (local language and traditional music, for example), they can be included in the research if they have an impact on the lives of locals. I have refrained from purifying the scope of this research to include only the so-called “authentic” aspects of the musical or street culture in the two cities. For example, the Yu Lan Festival in Hong Kong and the Thai Boxing scene do not dominate the discussion, despite the fact that the music and audible activities in the soundscape are oriental in their cultural context and coming from more long-standing traditions. Instead, an inclusive approach has been adapted in this research. The foreign music culture in Khao San Road, for example, are included as they represent the bar culture and impact of tourism on Bangkok, which extensively impacts the lives of locals. In short, the study of urban soundscapes is not obliged to authenticate the culture of a city, but to unfold the sonic reality of an urban place.
While most of the audio footage in this article is associated to street culture and the modernised infrastructure of the cities, three of Freek Colombijn’s four themes of urban sounds resonate within the case studies. The Mor Lam (หมอลำ) performance near Chao Phraya River in Case 7 and Klong Toei Market in Bangkok and Shui Wo Market in Hong Kong in Case 11 can be ascribed to sounds of the street. The automated metro systems and musical sounds found in Hong Kong and Bangkok in Case 14, the live music at Artbox Bangkok Exhibition Flea Market in Case 6, and the double-decker tram system in Hong Kong in Case 13 can be classified as sounds of modernity. The national railway in Bangkok in Case 12 can be aligned with the sounds of power. It is also interesting to notice that the themes are not mutually exclusive. The Diesel bus trips in Bangkok, for example, can be attributed to the sounds of modernity as well as the sounds of power.
However, the article cannot fully adapt or be adapted to Colombijn’s categorizations. Despite the fact that the titles of some of them are self-explanatory, the delineation of the themes, in particular the sounds of intimacy, require further elaboration for them to be useful for this research. Some distinctive soundscapes also fall outside the scope of the four themes. The Yu Lan Festival in Hong Kong in Case 1 and the midnight mass at Catedral Igreja da Sé in Macau in Case 3, for instance, cannot be attributed to any of Colombijn’s themes. I suggest that “sounds of belief systems” is one theme that might be added in order to encompass ritual, religious, and other cultural practices associated with any belief system within an ethnic group.
Time is a critical factor when prioritizing sound collection trips, as some urban soundscapes will be extinct sooner than others. Some examples include: the State Railway of Thailand, Klong Toei Market in Bangkok, Shui Wo Street Market in Hong Kong, and the tramway system in Hong Kong Island. Open street markets and historical rail systems have been prioritized targets for sound collection. It does not mean that they are expected to completely disappear from the scene, but modernization or revitalization may remove certain, still-existing, nuances from the sonic environment. Whether the extinction process is perceived as urban redevelopment, “gentrification of the city” (Glass 1964), or “urban revolution” (Lefebvre 2003), the eradication of street culture and small commercial clusters go hand-in-hand with the growing presence of global corporate complexes. The local flavor of urban sounds are diminishing in the face of the revitalization of urban space. In Bangkok and Hong Kong, urban restructuring is extraordinarily fast-paced due to state-led gentrification.
Concerning the variety of sound sources, some key urban soundscapes have not been covered in this article. For example, street music performances in Hong Kong are not presented. This is partly due to the strict regulations limiting public performances in the city. Music performances can still be found at the ferry pier in Tsim Sha Tsui and the industrial district in Eastern Kowloon, but have not been included here. Regarding the commuting systems, the scope of this article is limited to land transportation systems. Marine transport has yet to be investigated, including locations along the Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong and the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.
Another major opportunity lies within the investigation of demographic patterns and languages. Bangkok is an international city where foreign languages – such as American English, German, and Japanese – comprise key ingredients of its soundscape. Mandarin Chinese, on the other hand, has a growing significance in the soundscape of Hong Kong. This is due to the influx of tourists and immigrants from mainland China since the handover of sovereignty in 1997 and the implementation of The Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) from 2003. The demographic spread of human voices should be correlated to international and domestic politics. As such, audio footages highlighting multilingual environments could be included in future research.
Recorded sound forms a fundament for auditory knowledge. Textual descriptions, narratives, and conceptual formulations are essential components as well, but cannot replace the material substance of audio footage.In his recent article “Soundscape of the city is about more than decibels,” Blair Kamin (2015) noted that architects and urban designers mostly pay attention to visual design but ignore the importance of acoustic design. In terms of historical record, Colombijn (2007: 256) pointed out that “the historical study of soundscapes clearly suffers from a dearth of data. Photos and all manner of written sources (travelogues, newspapers, and government archives) provide information about the visual townscape, while only sound recordings can provide direct information about sounds from the past. Unfortunately no archives of these recordings exist in Indonesia to balance the libraries, ordinary archives, and photo collections.” Colombijn’s observations are relevant to my own research as well. I welcome further discussion and debate on the value of examining and reflecting on actual audio footage as representation of the urban soundscape. Considering the underrepresentation of sonic knowledge about Bangkok and Hong Kong, this multimedia essay offers an initial engagement with their wide panoramas of social and cultural realities. It will hopefully ignite future research into conceptualisations and methodologies for examining soundscapes in Southeast Asia.
 Although auditory knowledge of a remote site depends primarily on recorded sounds, each recording is also a composition. The time and location of sound collection, the capabilities of the recording equipment, the strategies of recording, and the equipment with which the listener plays back the sounds are all human-based choices that have a real impact on the perception and understanding of the sonic environment.
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I would like to thank Sharon Stewart for her help with the English editing. Her suggestions and language support helped bring this article to the English-speaking world. This article was also made possible thanks to the help of many people, including pianist Evonne Lei from Macau; composer Haruka Hirayama, with her detailed explanations of the Japanese songs for kids; music therapist Patchawan Poopityastaporn from Mahidol University; and Chonticha Keskesorn with her knowledge of Thai songs.