Home > Culture > Music > DJ El Toro on the current music scene in Hong Kong and performing at Clockenflap 2023
DJ El Toro on the current music scene in Hong Kong and performing at Clockenflap 2023

DJ El Toro calls himself “Hong Kong’s DJ”, and it’s easy to see why. A major pioneer of Hong Kong’s nightlife in the 1970s and 80s, he has reigned over the city’s disco and club scene for the past 50-plus years with no sign of pausing for a break. With his performance at Clockenflap 2023 done and dusted, he sits down with Lifestyle Asia to discuss the reemerging music scene in Hong Kong and his plans for the future.

Andrew Bull, better known by his stage name DJ El Toro, needs no introduction. A Hong Kong and Shanghai-based club legend with UK roots and US teachings, he describes himself as an “HSBC — Hong Kong, Shanghai, British citizen”. With over 50 years behind the deck in Hong Kong — he began spinning tracks on the streets in 1971 — the self-made DJ remains as popular as ever today, receiving so many invites he has the privilege to pick and choose his favourite gigs. Even the pandemic-induced lockdowns between Hong Kong and Shanghai proved to be no challenge for him, as he turned to live streaming and continued to make music when the rest of the world was taking a break. “Even though I don’t have a DJ booth in my house, I’ve been playing music,” he says of the past three years. “I didn’t take a year off from music or something like that — that would be pretty fatal for me.”

As Hong Kong dropped its last restrictions, DJ El Toro helped us celebrate our newfound masklessness at the city’s much-loved Clockenflap. Four years and a half later, the annual music festival is back with a strong line-up of individual artists, bands and yes, DJs. Over the weekend, DJ El Toro took to the Robot Stage to perform his disco-electronic-house (he calls it “eternal house”) tunes to a sold-out show of revellers that, judging from the beatific expressions at his set last Sunday, definitely fit his description of the perfect crowd: “[people who know] how to enjoy their life, how to dress for the party and how to really appreciate the music.”

How do you spend your time between Hong Kong and Shanghai?

I live in two cities at the same time. I’m HSBC — Hong Kong, Shanghai, British citizen. My wife, my clothes, my dogs and my office are in Shanghai, and I’ve been living in Shanghai for the last 20 years, but I’m a Hong Kong boy.

What was your most recent gig in Hong Kong?

My most recent gig was playing on Shek O Beach last Sunday. This week, I’m playing at Clockenflap and the Life Matters conference. And I also have just started playing regularly at a place called Baci, which is an Italian restaurant.

For proper DJ stuff, I do at least two per week at the moment in Hong Kong. I don’t have like a regular place where I work, but I do a lot of private parties. With the city opening up now, the phone is ringing every day.

How do you decide which gigs to take on with all the invites you get?

If I know the people who are booking me, it’s easy. I don’t like playing for complete strangers. My style is linking dance music culture from the beginning to now so I’m not just playing this year’s Spotify pop hit playlist. That’s somebody else’s job.

The worst gig I’ve played was for some people who were leaving [Hong Kong.] They didn’t know anything about me. They didn’t like any of my music, so they kept bugging me throughout the night and it was just awful.

What are your thoughts on the music scene in Hong Kong right now?

I think we’ve been broken for a few years and finally, there’s a slight spirit of change and optimism in the air, and maybe we start again. But it’s a different kind of Hong Kong these days, so I think we have to slowly study how the city is changing and evolving, and from there, we can start to reflect it in our music.

Hong Kong used to be a very different place, you know. It used to be an international place full of international visitors looking for fun. So if the audience isn’t there, you have to find a new audience. But certainly, Hong Kong has a little bit of hope for music right now with all the restrictions finally lifted.

So for the past two years, you know, music venues and clubs have been closed. What did you do? Like, how did you spend your time?

I’ve been lucky in that I missed out on the first big lockdown in Hong Kong. I haven’t felt that I’ve been out of work or something like that. There’s always been stuff going on in somebody’s house or a secret festival. I didn’t really get out of practice, I’ve been doing it all the time.

When it was really dead and locked down, I was able to keep busy doing some live streams, both in Hong Kong and Macau. So yeah, even though I don’t have a DJ booth in my house, I’ve been playing music. I didn’t take a year off from music or something like that — that would be pretty fatal for me.

How do you see yourself as a DJ?

The most accurate title for me is Hong Kong’s DJ. I’m probably the last surviving dinosaur who is still playing, who started before most people’s grandparents were even born. I’ve been DJing in Hong Kong on the streets since 1971, so I’m well known here and in some parts of China. But outside of our area, I’m not exactly a big name like Marshmello or something. So I would say, Hong Kong DJ is a good description because Hong Kong created me.

How would you describe your sound?

Sort of everybody-friendly style. It’s quite human.

What’s your ideal audience like?

It’s probably quite an international crowd who have been around Wonderfruit or Burning Man. But by International, I don’t just mean like a gweilo party. I’m talking about people who know how to enjoy their life, how to dress for the party and how to really appreciate the music.

There is a resurgence of disco nowadays, right?

When I go somewhere where I’m not playing and somebody else is playing, I very often realise that “wait a minute, that’s one of my songs”. Never expected that because the music and the songs have been re-edited, brought up to date and given the house track treatment.

Are there any artists or DJs that have been a continual source of inspiration throughout the years?

I was very lucky when I was a kid. My contract allowed me to fly from Hong Kong to New York three times per year to buy records because you couldn’t buy fresh dance music in Hong Kong. So I travelled to America quite often in the 70s and I was very uniquely privileged to have somebody paying me to do that.

At the same time as buying the records, I would go to see DJs playing music. Before the AIDS epidemic in the US, the gay DJs were very strong and they began what we call beat mixing. There was no difference between a radio DJ and a Club DJ, no “next song is such and such”. So the DJ in the club would be just like a DJ and a radio, and they would mix the tracks so people could go on for hours without knowing the song had changed, just like a dream. I was lucky to learn the style firsthand because the best DJs who practised it very quickly died of AIDS.

Hong Kong was very international in those days. I DJed at The Scene at The Peninsula for five years and the people staying in the hotel, who were fashion designers from New York, would bring me cassettes from the DJs there. I was in a very privileged position and could learn from the best.

I also had professional training in radio station work in Hong Kong and the UK, so I had very good technical grounding and knew the kind of music that was trending and popular from the inside. So I was the only guy who could bring that to Hong Kong, because I was the only one with that privilege. And so although I left Hong Kong 20 years ago, I come back every two months anyway, so I never really left. But I really back in Hong Kong now. And it’s it’s fantastic to see the opportunities for Hong Kong and for me, for being a kind of elder statesman of the discotheque scene. I don’t plan to relinquish that title. I want to keep that and support some of the young guys and support the thing that I single-handedly started without realising it.

What was your experience like performing at Clockenflap 2023?

I was very honoured when Clockenflap reached out to me. I mean, they have around 20 of Hong Kong’s most prominent DJs, like Helen Ting. Everybody that works hard in Hong Kong is on that list. While they focused mainly on live band performances, we DJs had a small stage somewhere near the FoodPanda lounge, so lots of people were relaxing there and joined in when we began playing.

It was absolutely fantastic to see the true diversity of Hong Kong’s international community and local community gathering within one spirit, in one place, to have a communal experience. The Sunday vibe, especially in the afternoon, was very relaxing. We played while the main stages were being transformed over to the next band, so there was no competing music with us, which we were worried about initially. I think Clockenflap was a great example of a stress-free music festival in Hong Kong and I hope it continues to be this way in the years to come.

What’s next for DJ El Toro?

I’m joining up with two other DJs called Kulu and Suiki — we call ourselves The Holy Spirits because we’re the three oldest DJs in Hong Kong — and we’ve been booked to play in Shanghai next week. We’re all looking forward to flying up there for that.

I’m also playing in Ibiza on 30 May, and later on in Koh Samui and Bali. Then I’m starting a residency at the W Hotel in Shenzhen. Sometimes I have to turn down work overseas because I need to prioritise the jobs in Hong Kong, but I’m glad 2023 is giving me lots of opportunities to travel.

Lastly, there’s a project I can’t talk about right now, but The Hong Kong Club is talking to me about a gala evening. It involves going back in time to Hong Kong’s famous discos. So stay tuned for that.

(Lead and featured images courtesy of DJ El Toro)

DJ El Toro on the current music scene in Hong Kong and performing at Clockenflap 2023

Charmaine Ng


Charmaine enjoys eating steamed broccoli and knocking back cups of spearmint tea, all in the name of health. Covering art, beauty and music :)


Never miss an update

Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest updates.

No Thanks
You’re all set

Thank you for your subscription.