What is a soundmark?

Is there any sound that reminds you of a particular place? For example, does the ding ding sound of trams remind you of Hong Kong? Would you think of London when you hear Big Ben chimes? If they do, those iconic sounds are soundmarks.

Derived from “landmark”, soundmark is a term used in Soundscape Studies to refer to a sound which is unique to an area or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community. A soundmark is highly symbolic because it evokes immediate association to the location upon being heard. Soundmarks, therefore, are of cultural and historical significance and merit preservation and protection.

Soundmark is not only a term found in Soundscape Studies. It has made its way into marketing and brand differentiation. Some luxury automobile brands develop their own engineering sounds in order to differentiate themselves from their peers and to give users a sense of superiority. Hence, soundmark gives characteristics to a place or a product. With uniqueness and individuality being much sought after by modern society, can you foresee how soundmark will develop in the near future?


The Century-Old Rhythm of The City’s Daily Life

Victoria Harbour is perhaps one of the most often featured landmarks of Hong Kong in postcards. Long famous for its spectacular views, the harbour is a major tourist attraction of Hong Kong. There is no better way to take in Hong Kong’s iconic harbour sights by boarding the Star Ferry

Ferrying Since 1888 – The Star Ferry is a passenger ferry service operator founded in 1888. Its principal routes carry passengers across Victoria Harbour, between Central in Hong Kong Island and Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon. Its ferry crossings at Victoria Harbour are acclaimed as an important part of the commute system between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, and essential journeys for visitors. The National Geographic Traveler named the ferry crossing as one of 50 places of a lifetime. The ferry ride is also well known as one of the world’s best value-for-money sightseeing trips.

Sounds of the Star Ferry – Serving Hong Kong for more than a century, sounds belonging to and characteristic of the Star Ferry is as familiar to the locals as home: the loud bell sounds announcing the drop of the upper and lower gangways, the rush of passengers when boarding, sounds of bow wave and engine amid the sea waves, the two-inch-thick mooring rope tightening around the bollard, the rush of passengers when unboarding. Sailing back and forth across Victoria Harbour carrying over 70,000 passengers a day, sounds of the Star Ferry are the rhythm of the city’s daily life and a soundmark of Hong Kong. They signify the dawn of a new day for this city and the homeward bound when the day ends, the city retiring to rest.

Before the demolition of the Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier in 2006, honking of the Star Ferry went hand in hand with the bell chiming of the pier’s clock tower, together constituting the soundscape of the waterfront. Now, only the sounds of the Star Ferry made it through history. While the Star Ferry bridges the distance across Victoria Harbour every day, its sounds bridge the century gap of Hong Kong then and now. Car honking is always considered an urban nuisance but with the honking of the Star Ferry, it is recalled with fondness by the locals who deem it special and iconic. It begs the question what makes a sound a soundmark; what makes a sound endearing to a city.

Hong Kong Wet Markets: A Sensory Excess

While some people prefer buying groceries in the clean, comfortable and standardized supermarkets, many locals in Hong Kong venture into the outdoor, loud and vibrant wet markets because the prices are lower and the quality is higher.

A wet market (街市) is where fresh meat and produce are sold, distinguished from dry markets which sell durable goods such as cloth and electronics. Wet markets frequented by the locals are situated at Graham Street in Central, Tai Po Hui, Chun Yeung Street (春秧街) in North Point, and Bowrington Road in Wan Chai, to name but a few. You will find stalls selling a cornucopia of goods ranging from poultry, live fish, fresh meat, to fruits and vegetables.

Thriving Since Colonization – Wet markets have long been a feature of Hong Kong life. Before the British arrived in the 19th century, markets took place once or twice a week in towns like Tai Po. After colonization, daily street markets began to emerge. As Hong Kong Tourism Board put it, “Hong Kong’s multitude of wet markets are windows into a vivid and timeless world of food shopping that refuses to be extinguished by modern supermarkets.” Thus, sounds characteristic and distinctive of wet markets are soundmarks of Hong Kong.

At the Height of Activity – A wet market in full swing would make a spectacular soundscape because it is clamourous and overwhelming, if not raucous and chaotic. It is a sensory excess with a long list of actions taking place, for example, vendors of different stalls hollering, hawking their products; butchers chopping meat; vendors gutting and scaling fish; vendors and customers bargaining; shoppers bustling about looking for the best deal. More than anything, human voices are a prominent component in the sonic environment of a wet market. You may even notice a pattern in sounds heard at the wet markets at different times of the day. You may find domestic helpers engrossed in fast-paced chatting in the mornings and vendors crying out reduced prices at night when they are about to close their stalls. More often than not, a busy wet market is as much a visual feast as auditory overload.

Indoor Wet Markets – Some wet markets have retreated indoors into government-operated market buildings. Plans to redevelop have moved stalls indoors. A well-known example of indoor wet markets is Kowloon City Market which has as many as 581 stalls. While some indoor wet markets have air-conditioning, some mimic supermarkets and broadcast sales announcements. With the wet market being enclosed instead of exposed outdoors, what do you think would happen to its soundscape?

The Clocks That Rang No More

For anyone who has walked the streets in the vicinity of Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry Pier, have you ever noticed the granite tower in red bricks overlooking the Victoria Harbour? If you have, have you ever wondered why you never heard the clocks on the tower ring?

Chiming Since 1921 – The history of Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower goes back a long way. It was erected in 1915 as part of the Kowloon Station on the Kowloon-Canton Railway. Built in the Edwardian Classical Revival style, the clock tower is 44 metres high and surmounted by a 7-metre lightning rod, with a clock on each side of the structure. The clocks on each face of the tower have run ever since 1921 except during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in World War II which left marks of combat on the tower building. Chiming of the station clocks verbalized a standard indication of time to both passengers and railway staff.

The Muted Tower – With a new terminus station opened in Hung Hom in 1975, Kowloon Station was demolished in 1977 with the exception of the Clock Tower. Hence, the Clock Tower is all that remains of the old Kowloon station, greeting visitors and travellers ashore today as it were half a century ago. However, with the demolition of the Kowloon Station, the huge bell inside the Clock Tower tolls no more and has been put on display.

The fate of the muted tower can perhaps be compared with its Central counterpart. Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier was built in 1957 in Central and a Clock Tower was added to it to make the pier more balanced and practical. The clock was a gift from Sir John Henry Keswick, an influential Scottish businessman in Hong Kong, who had received the clock from the Prince of Belgium. The chimes of the clock at Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier marked every quarter-hour since the pier’s inauguration in 1957, till the midnight on 12th November 2006 before the pier’s demolition. Videos taken by the public to record the clock tower’s last chimes show the historical and cultural weight sound can carry and that the public care about the preservation of iconic sounds of the city. It would be a good idea if the citizens can preserve sounds using a systematic means such as a sound map denoting where the sound was and how a location used to sound like. While the Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower is at least still standing, the Clock Tower in Central is completely wiped off and erased. Preservation of its sound will add to the completeness of record we have of the Clock Tower which no longer exists.

A Declared Monument – Despite the social and economic upheavals that transformed Hong Kong in the past century, the tower is the only constant and one of Hong Kong’s oldest landmarks. In recognition of its historical and cultural value, the tower has been listed as a declared monument in Hong Kong since 2000. While the physical architecture and old photos of the clock tower live on, the sound of the clock bell does not, making the Clock Tower an excellent example of a disappeared soundmark. Preservation of the monument should go further than the visual aspect and the tower serves a standing example of the importance of sound archives.

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