The artists of compromise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 1994, 12:00am

TO POLL or not to poll - that is the central question in the public row between a maverick group of arts community spokesmen and the Secretary for Recreation and Culture, James So Yiu-cho.

The battle, over how to staff the Arts Development Council (ADC), a funding and policy body with a $68-million annual budget, has been on the boil since October 1993 when the first working group was set up.

The artists want membership of the council to be by election. Any other approach, they argue, will turn the body into a government rubber stamp committee, and with 1997 looming, an elected council is more important than ever to protect them from censorship.

However, the time for debate is running out. The council is due to become a statutory body in April - but only if the two sides can reach a compromise before then. Last week, that seemed unlikely, with the row erupting into a public name calling session. The Economic Journal reported that Mr So had, in a choice Cantonese expression usually restricted to divorce negotiations, threatened to withdraw the statutory bill if the arts community insisted on elections.

In response, 11 artists' groups launched a letter campaign aimed at Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang and demanding Mr So's resignation.

But on Wednesday, Mr So finally met the artists and offered to allow them to select at least three ex-officio members out of a total membership of 16. Although it wants eight elected members, the opening of dialogue at least helped relieve the tension for the arts community.

'So is just afraid of the word 'election',' says Danny Yung Ning-tsun, council member and director of the Zuni Icosahedron theatre group, who balanced between the mavericks and Mr So when things reached rock bottom last week.

Vicki Ooi Cheung-har, a member of the Cultural Sector Joint Committee, an artists' consultative group, said she has been calmer since her meeting with Mr So last week. Joint author of the letter to the Chief Secretary and vocal supporter of direct elections, she said the campaign produced results. 'We wrote the letter to smoke James So out. When he agreed to meet us, we became civilised. The hostility was not directed at So personally.' However, it certainly sounded personal last week when Ms Ooi, a senior lecturer in English at Hong Kong University and a prominent member of the International Association of Theatre critics, lashed out at the secretary.

'Anyone who has a position that high should have some common sense. Problems don't just fade away, they need friendly negotiation,' she said. 'It is ridiculous for So to think he can 'divorce' the whole artistic community.' Given the unhappy history of its predecessor, the Council for the Performing Arts, it is no surprise that setting up the ADC was never a simple matter of giving some leading arts community figures the statutory power and the $40 million a year necessary to run the body.

The Council for the Performing Arts was constantly attacked as biased and unaccountable, and the arts community is anxious not to repeat past mistakes. The official policy of the ADC is direct elections. But Mr So, who says he is speaking on instructions from the Governor, says they would be unworkable.

This does not help the provisional ADC, which is already on uncertain ground. With only four months to go until it is to become a fully fledged statutory body, it has yet to produce a satisfactory definition of who constitutes the arts community, and who therefore should be eligible to vote in direct elections.

Various camps have offered alternatives. Ms Ooi says anyone who has been a member of a recognised arts union for the past three years should be able to vote. But council member and Arts Centre exhibition director Oscar Ho Hing-wai said this definition ignored audiences, and more importantly, the taxpayers who funded the ADC. He said elections should be open to 'anyone who wants to vote'.

'If we don't have a fair and reasonable definition of the constituency, then democracy is just a term,' said Mr Ho. 'I can't support a principle I find unworkable.' He challenged Ms Ooi's definition saying most artists in Hong Kong were not members of any association and were self taught.

Nevertheless, the fuss over the ADC is beginning to sound more like a war of words than a real split. The calls for resignation came because of the Chinese expression Mr So used to describe to reporters how he would 'divorce' the arts community if they did not back down.

Now everyone seems essentially to be in agreement - at least on the need for negotiations. Some even believe both sides have come out wiser - and closer. 'If there hadn't been a letter, there wouldn't have been a meeting between So and the letter writers,' says Danny Yung. 'So might be bitter about it, but at least the channels of communication are open.'