SCMP Debate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 May, 2012, 12:00am

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Hong Kong is wealthy, but it has never been considered rich in culture and the arts. Now, incoming chief executive Leung Chun-ying has proposed creating a culture bureau. In the latest SCMP debate, we ask five noted members of the cultural community what they think of the idea and whether it will help or hinder Hong Kong's development as a vibrant cultural centre.

Q1 Do you think Hong Kong needs a culture bureau? If yes, explain why; if not, outline your concerns.

Q2 Should the bureau serve as a facilitator in developing Hong Kong as a hub of culture and creative industries, or a policymaker mapping out the direction of arts and culture development in Hong Kong? What other roles should the bureau play?

Q3 Apart from setting up a culture bureau, what measures or initiatives would you recommend to help develop arts and culture in the city?

Oscar Ho Hing-kay

Director of Chinese University of Hong Kong's cultural management programme

A1 No, if the bureau is in fact the 'Propaganda Office for Social and Cultural Harmony', with the political missions of controlling cultural activities and undertaking patriotic or other forms of political propaganda.

Yes, if the bureau is led by knowledgeable professionals who have the analytical and critical know-how to review the existing cultural infrastructure, the vision and intelligence to develop a cultural policy that deals with the existing problems and cultivate our cultural potentials, and possesses the authority of leadership within the cultural community to consolidate collective efforts to build a path for a cultural development that is distinctively Hong Kong. It would be unrealistic to expect such an ideal bureau to be formed right away, but at least the roles and the missions needed to be clearly set, and efforts must be put in to ensure the bureau will be moving towards such directions. When the Arts Development Council was set up, the arts community hoped it would be a vision provider and an energiser for the arts. In the end, it turned out to be nothing but a fund distributor. The culture bureau must do much more than that.

A2 The bureau should be a facilitator that provides support - visionary, advisory and funding - to the cultural well-being of the community. It should be a collaborator of various cultural groups as well as government offices for a holistic, multi-layered development of culture and the creative industries.

It should be a policymaker that makes concrete and workable policy, and have the will and determination to implement the policy. The failure of the Home Affairs Bureau in the past to implement policy (such as the refusal to corporatise public museums, despite such a recommendation being made twice by two officially formed committees) has been disappointing and discouraging.

Most important of all, the bureau should be a defender and protector of arts and culture. It should defend the cultural right of its citizens, protect them from any form of direct or indirect censorship, suppression or interference, and ensure diversity and acceptance in cultural expression. It should ensure the public's opportunities to freely appreciate, study and engage in the making of art, regardless of their ethnicity, age, gender, physical condition, or social and economic background.

A3 The bureau cannot succeed if some of the negative practices that are suffocating the development of culture continue. Working out a strategy for the development of culture, for example, requires professional knowledge and expertise. The long-established 'buddy buddy' system that accommodates only friends but not necessary professionals must be changed. The bureaucrats should learn to trust professionals with independent minds. A panel of experts is urgently needed to conduct in-depth studies of the cultural characteristics and potential of Hong Kong culture, and to locate Hong Kong within the cultural and intellectual landscape of the 21st century, both global and regional, particularly within the context of a fast-changing China.

Cultural development is not just about putting up big, glamorous shows or building impressive buildings. It requires the total support of a close-knit cultural ecology, which involves production (training of artists, conditions for the production of arts), mediation (research and criticism, school and public education, cultural management and presentation) and consumption (audience building, sale of art). Much of this work is not visible and requires long-term investment. Over the years, our cultural practices have been reduced to focusing on only producing spectacle for the sake of temporary publicity. We need to get rid of this 'Big Show' mindset and seriously study the gaps and loopholes within the entire ecological chain. Aiming at comprehensive and sustainable growth, we need to start to do things that are solid and long term.

Hong Kong has a great geographical location, a colourful, diversified, contemporary and cosmopolitan culture, intelligent and open-minded people, a rich cultural tradition (many people don't know that), and the government has money. We have all the qualities to be like New York or London. Why can' we? All we need is the vision and the will.

Dr Lee Ho-yin

Director of the University of Hong Kong's architectural conservation programme

A1 The recent announcement of the setting up of a culture bureau by the chief executive-designate C. Y. Leung is a most welcome initiative. It is critical for Hong Kong to establish a culture bureau with the mandate to envision strategies and establish policies for Hong Kong's long-term sustainable development in arts and culture.

A strong rationale for setting up a culture bureau is the importance of linking cultural development with economic development. Up until now, these two aspects have been treated as separate entities and handled by different bureaus. A culture bureau offers the opportunity to integrate development in arts and culture with the creative industries. This will contribute towards the much-needed diversification of Hong Kong's economy. We are only too aware of the current unsustainable economic reliance on property development and tourism - industries that will eventually be eclipsed by the higher capacities and potentials in mainland China.

The significance of having a bureau that has the capacity to integrate the creative industries with economic development is vital for fostering the creative talents of Hong Kong's design professionals. Such talents are a valuable economic asset brought about by the circumstances of the cosmopolitan nature of our society and the freedom of expression protected by the law. In order for these creative talents to be more competitive in the global market as well as the emerging market in mainland China, they need to be nurtured by a culture bureau with a defined role as a facilitator for integrating arts and culture with the creative industries.

A2 One particular role that should not come under the culture bureau is built-heritage conservation. In this respect, a distinction should be made between built-heritage and the broader concept of cultural heritage. In the past, the lack of distinction between the two has led to the narrow association of built-heritage with museums. Such an association has also led to an archaeological approach to preserve built-heritage as relics.

Following the announcement of a comprehensive conservation policy in the 2007 policy address and the setting up of the Development Bureau, Hong Kong has made great strides in the adaptive reuse of built-heritage resources - referred to as 'revitalisation' in the local nomenclature. This approach has proven to work particularly well for Hong Kong. The momentum created from revitalisation projects and initiatives in the past five years under the Development Bureau must be sustained into the next five years and beyond.

The reason why conservation through revitalisation must continue within the Development Bureau, and not under a new culture bureau, is because such a scope can only be effectively carried out alongside planning and land use. Such is the case with Shanghai, where built-heritage conservation is carried out under the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Planning and Land Resources, and Singapore, where it is under the Urban Redevelopment Authority, a planning and land authority.

Further examples that demonstrate this trend of linking built-heritage conservation with urban development can be seen in Macau and the UK. In April this year, the Macau SAR government announced a draft built-heritage conservation legislation based on planning and land use. In March, the UK government released its national planning policy framework, a planning policy document that includes built-heritage conservation as a key component. The point being made here is that many well-developed cities all over the world have recognised the fact that built-heritage conservation needs to be integrated with planning and land use, and not be simplified under the framework of arts and culture.

In summary, a culture bureau should have a clear scope in the sustainable development of arts and culture. What it should not take of are roles that can be more effectively carried out by the existing Development Bureau; specifically, built-heritage conservation.

Ma Fung-kwok

Former chairman of the Arts Development Council

A1 The most important issue here isn't about having a culture bureau. The essential thing is whether there are the right measures and policies, favourable to the development of arts and culture in Hong Kong.

The probable reason why the establishment of a culture bureau has been proposed by all three chief executive election candidates is that the culture sector has demanded better cultural policy implementation in the past, but such demands have never been satisfied. So the idea of setting up a culture bureau is a response to what has been asked for before. The establishment of such a bureau is certainly a good chance to fulfil various expectations.

Setting up a new culture bureau will not itself require a lot of resources. But having a bureau will not solve the problems if there are not the right policies in place. Extra financing should be considered if real needs are identified, but we have to first look at possible ways to make better use of existing resources.

A2 The culture bureau should operate on two different levels: government policy implementation and the non-government sector.

On a policy level, the culture bureau should maintain close contact with the sector to address its concerns and needs in an effective and timely manner, working hand in hand with the sector to enhance the city's creative culture by maintaining a free and open environment for expression.

One important task for this culture bureau is that it should drive and co-ordinate policies and deployment of resources among various government bureaus and departments, so as to make this city a friendly place for creative expression.

Here, money is only one among many kinds of resources the government can provide. The use of public space, incubation facilities for up-and-coming talents, and relaxation of regulations that are currently restrictive to the development of arts and culture are all things the government can and should do for our creative talents. By providing arts-and-culture practitioners with the appropriate resources, the government can give their creativity a completely free hand.

On the operational level, the bureau should try to work at arms length to entrust the non-government sector with more responsibilities to the furthest possible extent, thus enabling the sector more room to grow. A decent-sized, capable sector is essential for achieving the ultimate goal.

The culture bureau will have to revisit existing policies, the roles and performance of related bodies such as the Arts Development Council, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and the Academy of Performing Arts, heritage conservation and developing creative industries, to ensure services are up to date, of good quality, efficient, user friendly and coping with the needs of the sector and the expectations of the community at large.

The bureau will have to maintain the cultural services that it can provide the public, because these will help fulfil the bureau's mission in cultivating the city's creative atmosphere and boost the cultural vitality of Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan place.

Grooming talents - both artists and arts administrators - should also be among the priorities of the bureau. It should also promote cultural exchanges between Hong Kong and mainland China as well as overseas territories, to introduce Hong Kong to an international audience and to broaden the vision of our talents.

A3 Other government bureaus and departments should pay attention to cultural development, and incorporate such an agenda into their policymaking process. This will require a high level of governmental co-ordination.

Special attention should be paid to arts education and promoting the arts at the district level to assure every citizen can have the opportunity to participate, practise and appreciate them from an early age and keep it as a lifelong experience.

Yan Huichang

Artistic director and principal conductor with the HK Chinese Orchestra

A1 I was born in Xian and lived there for 24 years. Since then, I have been living and working in Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan. Appointed to be the Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra in 1997, I have been living here for 15 years and Hong Kong is my second hometown. I am happy to see the future establishment of a culture bureau in Hong Kong.

Culture is not just for a small group or community. Instead, it is part of our daily lives. The establishment of a culture bureau will not only help lead and map out the long-term development of the cultural scene in Hong Kong; a visionary leader will also help to differentiate the individuality of art and the function of the arts to a society. We shouldn't see culture and arts that belong nowhere and is a mere attachment to leisure or entertainment.

A2 One of the key values of the Hong Kong arts scene is that the Hong Kong government has been very supportive of the arts. It will not micro-manage and interfere in the artistic direction of the arts groups. Instead, the government provides a platform for artistic freedom and creativity.

I've noticed that there are recent changes in China in respect of artistic freedom and financial support for the arts. While many large-scale orchestras in the US and Europe have been pushed to close due to budgetary constraints, governments from the region such as those in China, Singapore and Taiwan are investing more and more resources and enhancing development of the arts from different perspectives. A country/city will only be strong, recognised and gain a position on the world arts stage when it has strong cultural roots and its own identity. Home bases for major performing arts groups to facilitate their long-term programme planning and strengthen identity have already been established in China, Singapore and Taiwan. Hong Kong is lagging behind. The Hong Kong government or the new culture bureau must be very conscious of this and provide support if it wants Hong Kong to be Asia's world city.

We all know that culture and entertainment have different value systems. I trust that a visionary leader of the culture bureau will clearly rectify the concept that the arts are an intangible asset of a city; it is an investment in the city and the people living there. We talk about 'business model' and 'entrepreneurship' ; these are not dirty words for the arts or culture, but the concept and framework for an arts organisation are different from commercial enterprises. Many commercial firms pay strong attention to corporate social responsibility or collaborate in different ways to support the arts business. On the other hand, arts organisations also organise popular activities, community events to establish links with society. The business model of an arts organisation, which is actually the core values of an arts organisation, involves intangible and long-term investment to allow room for creativity, lead the audience to a new horizon and appreciate the value of art - to allow the taking of risks, and exploring new development. It's not just about rows of figures.

A3 Apart from setting up a culture bureau, I think systematic measures should be adopted to support the development of both young budding artistes/arts groups and mature major performing arts groups. The total funding should be increased to nurture young budding artistes, small and medium-sized groups as well as to sustain the development of mature and major arts groups of Hong Kong. A platform for healthy and vibrant development of the arts is needed, where artistes and groups with different core values and missions could join hands to flourish, but not to compete for the limited subsidies for arts development.

Allan Zeman

Chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Holdings and of Ocean Park

A1 Yes, Hong Kong definitely needs a culture bureau because culture is a very important element in making a city great and competitive in the 21st century. And the culture bureau should be headed by someone with knowledge, experience, and a vision for the long-term development of arts and culture in Hong Kong. The cultural minister needs to be very open-minded, and have a good knowledge of local and international culture. Arts and culture span a wide range of sectors and the bureau should be able to work across sectors and disciplines in order to infuse arts and culture into the society as a whole. I definitely agree with C.Y. Leung's proposal to have a cultural minister as this is something that I had suggested eight years ago when I was a member of the Cultural Commission.

A2 I think the culture bureau should both be a policymaker and a facilitator. When we talk about cultural policy setting, it is important that the bureau should not try to control or to select the content of culture, but to listen to the arts community, the creative industries, the performing groups, etc, to facilitate discussions in society in order to come up with a high level culture policy with a strong vision. Once there's a policy that is widely accepted by the community, the bureau should lead and facilitate the implementation of the policy - be empowered to work with schools, social service agencies, art communities, performing groups, etc. It is also very important that the bureau should co-ordinate closely with other bureaus such as LCSD, Home Affairs Bureau, Education Bureau, Arts Development Council, etc, to make sure the policies can be facilitated across the whole government.

A3 I can see that today Hong Kong people are more aware of the importance to preserve arts and culture in their community. For tourists around the world that visit Hong Kong, they don't just want to go shopping at the luxury malls; many of them choose to go on heritage tours to get a taste of local culture. So I think while the culture bureau should lead the development of arts and culture in Hong Kong, everyone should play a part to help develop arts and culture in the city.

Education is also a very important element. Education, in the broadest sense, should underpin the work of the new bureau. This bureau should look at arts and culture in a bigger context than pure visual and the performing arts; it should encompass digital media, design, film, technology, etc. The culture bureau should work closely with the Education Bureau to allow students to grow up with culture from a young age. This would help to develop audiences for our future venues.

Also the bureau should focus on the training and development of artists (visual and performing), and see how they can achieve this through working with various tertiary institutions. The new bureau should revisit the existing funding structure and be able to overhaul a funding scheme that is largely out of date.

Also the bureau should explore and encourage more private sector participation in the funding of the arts and start a new culture of giving in Hong Kong. Also the bureau can do its part to allow street performances in a much broader sense. It is very important that the culture bureau make sure that the West Kowloon Cultural District is supported from all aspects to ensure that this is a world-class cultural area. I always say, without arts and culture, the city will be dead. Hong Kong is one of the richest cities in the world, but it is only through arts and culture we can make it a great city.

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