The music is breaking through the walls in waves. Reeling throughout the marble heart of the cruise ship, the sound drags us through the beating hallways ever higher toward its source. A door opens, and we enter.
In the lift, an Asian-Australian man from Sydney beams at us from beneath a two-inch gash across his forehead. Caught up in the sheer joy of sensation, he has somersaulted into one of the outdoor pools and smashed his head against the side. “You guys like EDM?” he asks rhetorically, a white hand towel clenched against the spreading blood. “Everybody fuckin’ loves EDM.” We have been at sea approximately 40 minutes.
The crown jewel of Southeast Asia’s flourishing electronic dance music (EDM) scene, It’s the Ship is a three-night festival set on a luxury cruise liner sailing between Singapore and the Malaysian island of Penang. The festival returned this year for its third time ferrying the region’s wealthiest revellers inexorably to their happy place.
On the vast, sun-soaked deck, Singaporean Instagram stars with unconvincing noses pose with tattooed Thai club rats. Shirtless Aussies with sculpted limbs stagger past with armfuls of mixers, tanned hands wrapped around sweating bottles of Grey Goose. A clump of Playboy bunnies in black bikinis bobs listlessly in a cordoned-off hot tub on the central deck. Hauntingly beautiful, they will spend the entire voyage in the traditional mourning colours of their native Thailand in reverence for the country’s recently deceased King. The black ribbons perched on their shoulders shine with the same grim lustre as their hair.
And everywhere there is music. On the main stage, headline acts such as Knife Party and Dada Life draw crowds of ecstatic dancers, pulsing and shuddering with the beat that pounds through outsized speakers. Dancers in designer swimwear tumble backwards into frothing swimming pools, blinged-out iPhones hanging from their necks in plastic sheathes. Elsewhere on the ship, local artists ranging from hip-hop group Thaitanium to DJ duo Bangkok Invaders play to a panting mass of fans whose eyes are shrouded behind bejewelled sunglasses even in the earliest hours of morning. These are the bright young things of Southeast Asia in the 21st century: rich, restless and ravenous for EDM.
Speaking to Southeast Asia Globe, Indonesian DJ and producer Dipha Barus, whose best-selling single “No One Can Stop Us” launched the young Jakartan to international fame just months ago, says that the demand for local talent had risen enormously over the past few years.
The crowds in Southeast Asia are very educated – they know their music, which is great because you can really focus on gathering a really strong fan base.
“What we had five years back, there was no local dance music scene; it was just… a big club inviting all the big… international artists, but the local scene was dead,” he says. “For the past two years I think it’s wonderful how the Indonesian crowd has respected the Indonesian DJs and the Indonesian producers, because just this year all the radio stations are full of Indonesian electronic dance music tracks – over the international songs.”
Fresh from a set at Kuala Lumpur’s prestigious Zouk KL nightclub, legendary Dutch DJ and producer Sander van Doorn describes the region’s ravers as some of the most passionate in the world.
“The crowds in Southeast Asia are very educated – they know their music, which is great because you can really focus on gathering a really strong fan base,” he says. “Over here I’d say the fans are really energetic, they really appreciate the DJ – you really feel the love when you’re playing.”
On the second night at sea, scoured from the decks by the machine gun rattle of rain, a boatload of bingers pours below deck to seek their next hit. In an enormous auditorium, US hip-hop and electro group Far East Movement whip the crowd into a frenzy with their six-year-old chart-topper “Like a G6”. Overcome, partygoers rip the corks from champagne bottles and spray each other in the face.
It is a strange sight for those who have watched the governments of Southeast Asia crack down relentlessly on the rights and liberties of their peoples. Both Malaysia and Indonesia are facing rising degrees of hardline Islam, with rumours of a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol rocking the latter. Thailand’s military junta, the royal succession well in hand, has plunged the country into a state of tense mourning as gangs of royalists roam the streets of Bangkok. The government of Singapore, where sex between men is still legally punishable by up to two years in prison despite changing attitudes in the city-state, recently moved to curb international support for pro-LGBTI rallies in the nation’s sole designated protest space. Yet for the ecstatic crowd stained with champagne and sweat in the bowels of Asia’s largest EDM cruise festival, there exists only the music.
According to Barus, the crowds filling his nation’s nightclubs are flourishing despite Indonesia’s rising conservatism.
“There’s no impact,” he says. “We know the political issues in the government; it’s been there since – I don’t know. People are concerned, but it’s not a factor in the scene. There’s one party, it’s called ‘Pon Your Tone’ – it’s an Indonesian dance music movement. It’s not just a party; they have a social campaign… so that young people can look at all the political issues, all the social issues with their design and their promo material. So it’s good. But all the political issues and everything, the corruption, the religion – it’s not affecting the scene.”
Standing in line at the George Town docks on her way back from the ship’s stopover in Penang, a young Malaysian with strident red hair surveys the hooting crowd around her. Draped in the plastic rainbow wreaths hooked around their necks during their first steps onto the island, the partygoers are still buzzing from a raucous street party near the city’s central strip. She seems unsurprised by the rowdiness surrounding her.
“You get really restricted in countries in Asia, so it’s an opportunity to break out of those sorts of stereotypes and have a bit of fun,” she says.
For the young woman, who declined to give her name, the three-night festival is a much-needed break from a political system that seems increasingly detached from the youth it claims to represent.
“I think [Southeast Asians] get onto a fucking thing like the ship to get away from all that bullshit,” she says. “They don’t feel connected to it in their country – they go into a place like the ship to get away from it.”
Perhaps nothing about the trip echoed this philosophy of fantasy more than its star attraction: a shock DJ set by former Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, who serves as resident crooner/captain for the entire cruise. Mourning the disappearance of his luggage and faced with the dismal process of enduring three nights’ partying in the same set of clothes, the Hoff was candid about his skills behind the decks.
“We took Baywatch and Knight Rider and a few songs that I like, and talked to Knife Party and said: ‘Can you help me out, make a little bit of linear continuity through it?’ And so we’ll see what happens,” he says.
Forced to slip between the ship’s decks via the staff elevator to dodge a cacophony of drunken fans, the celebrity seems to take little part in the chaos of the crowds. Instead, fleeting glimpses of the man jokingly credited with bringing down the Berlin Wall with the power of his music add a dreamlike quality to the journey as his rugged features crop up in the unlikeliest of places.
On the third day, as the final stragglers are collecting their passports in the ship’s enormous multi-deck ballroom to prepare for their departure the following morning, a familiar voice booms down from the speaker system. Dressed casually in brown sandals and a blue football jersey with his name emblazoned on the back – the mystery of his luggage’s reappearance endures to this day – the Hoff is negotiating his critical introduction at that evening’s black-tie gala.
“Don’t make it crazy,” he says to an eager-looking helper. “Just say: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Captain Hoff.’”
Speaking to media before the event, Hasselhoff was relaxed. “I have no idea what’s going to happen at the gala,” he says. “I don’t know if anyone’s really going to know the songs – but I don’t care. It’s how I feel. And there’s one song there that goes: ‘This time around I’m going to make it, this time around I’ll make it last’ – and it means something to me to sing it. So I’m going to enjoy myself.”
He does. That night, resplendent in a blue crushed velvet jacket, Hasselhoff moves down the titanic staircase like a clipper leaving the shore. It is a spectacle that encapsulates perfectly the surreal majesty of It’s the Ship: an ageing 80s icon belting out Broadway show tunes to a packed-out ballroom of Southeast Asian rich kids onboard a cruise ship the size of a skyscraper. “This is the moment,” he croons. “This is the day – when I send all my doubts and demons on their way. Every endeavour I have made ever, is coming into play – it’s here, and now, today.”
It is this creed that dances in the wave-wracked halls of the ship: a generation’s fleeting chance for three days’ grace from the stresses of Southeast Asia’s swelling economic prosperity, beyond the reach of politics and the pressures of society. On the last night onboard, storm clouds gather in the eastern skies. Caught in that sensual music, the dancers drown the distant thunder with pounding feet, all cares dissolving in their wake like so much empty sea foam.