Early in 2003, Hong Kong was a scary ghost town. Rumors were rife about a mysterious, contagious disease that decimated a person’s respiratory system and seemingly overnight, one mask became two, then two became six million. At its worst, the unknown plague called SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) not only sent bodies to the morgue physically…it crippled the city’s famous “Can Do” soul.
Hong Kong Harbourfest was supposed to change all that. This was to be one of several initiatives created in the wake of SARS to get the city moving economically in the eyes of both its citizens and potential tourists overseas. The event, organized by members of the American Chamber of Commerce, and financed lavishly by a special government committee, was designed to last two weeks and would feature a blend of Hong Kong’s up and coming singers combined with some of music’s biggest acts. Eason Chan would support Air Supply. Andy Hui would support Santana. The Twins supported then buzzworthy act T.A.T.U.
The headliners for the entire event would be Neil Young, Rolling Stones (two nights) and…Prince.
For many casual listeners at the time (let alone local residents who had never heard of him), Prince was perceived to be an artist whose heyday was most likely over. Over the past several years, he had severed his relationship with his record company (Warner Brothers), released a sprawling 3CD set (Emancipation) to general indifference, stopped using his name in favor of a symbol (before reverting back again) and was, by and large, only releasing his music through his online only subscription service. He also hadn’t had a top ten single in nearly a decade.
“Name a good song he’s done since the early 90s,” said some music fans upon hearing about Prince’s upcoming Hong Kong appearance.
“Yeah, what’s he going to sing and what’s he even look like these days?” asked others.
During Harbourfest’s opening night, a mixed audience of locals and mostly expats tried to sit through the fledgling Cantopop antics of Hong Kong act The Twins, as many were no doubt envisioning how Prince was reacting, and whether or not he would really show. The 20,000 in attendance (the event’s best attended night) were also visibly awed by the impressive outdoor stage and the setting, a flat, open area in the heart of the city, conveniently located along Hong Kong’s waterfront. The view from the stage would take in the entire Victoria Harbour and the Tsim Sha Tsui district beyond that. By all anecdotal accounts, for two weeks, it was one of the world’s great concert stages.
Then Prince came out…and 20,000 jaws dropped. Clad in a sharp red shirt and white suit ensemble that he had made from famed local tailor Sam, he marched through “Let’s Go Crazy”, “I Would Die For You” and “When Doves Cry”, three tracks off ‘Purple Rain’, his biggest album, in quick secession.
And the monster songs kept on coming, as if it was a dream Prince setlist. The synth heavy “D.M.S.R” from ‘1999’, covers of songs made famous by Sheila E., Chaka Khan and Sinead O’Connor, a nod back to the early album ‘Controversy’, a rendition of ‘Kiss’ and finally, for an encore, “Purple Rain”.
In all, Prince and his ultra sharp band played 24 songs. Throughout, it was ultra high energy, as if Prince had something to prove, wanting to show that he was still a vital force in the music world. It was if a cyclone had ripped through the heart of the city. But even then, Prince wasn’t through. Later, he would burn through a post-midnight set at a small local city club called The Edge.
Some point to that evening as the beginning of Prince’s resurgence in the public’s eye. In the following year, he would release a new top ten album (“Musicology”), win two Grammy Awards and have his highest ever touring year ever (earning over US$87 million).
Prince was back.
And so was Hong Kong. Despite eventual squabbling over the intent of the Harbourfest event, the city quickly regained its footing, and, as many know, became even more of an economic and real estate powerhouse.
And for one night, one of rock’s greatest entertainers performed in one of the world’s greatest cities at a time when both needed each other most.
The result was magic…