Our inheritance through heritage

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 December, 2006, 12:00am

I shall say it, although a lot of people, and quite a few of my friends, particularly the rich ones, will hate me for it or think I am talking about something they do not recognise, or that I am being silly or exaggerating. Nonetheless, I shall say it: on the whole, what has defined our privileged nouveaux riches, who have made Hong Kong into the success that it is, is marked by a vacuum of style or any sense of culture and heritage that might be considered greater than that of an amoeba.

I have seen the way our tycoons live; I have seen the way they behave; and I have seen the houses they live in - houses worth tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars - yet almost all of them exude a desperate and barren atmosphere. No books to be seen on shelves, or at least ones which are actually read; no pictures to be jealous of (on the contrary, often just ones which make you shudder); no artefacts with craftsmanship and history to admire - simply no evidence of culture or art or heritage or any general sense of intellectual imagination.

There is no soul; no traces of a life in richness other than that which is definable simply by monetary terms. Given this sorrowful waste among our elite, how can we in Hong Kong lend credence to our being an international and important city? No city can be a great city without an anchored sense of culture. It doesn't have to be high culture, but culture practised and treasured by the natives. Yet almost daily, we witness the destruction of our heritage to make way for those philistine tycoons who are driven only by profits and more profits, with total disregard to anything else.

What would the fairly sophisticated visitors from abroad think of our city when they find the middle and lower-middle classes being squeezed out by the oligarchs (for our tycoons are oligarchs), and still worse, our oligarchs leading a way of life that is mostly devoid of culture?

Would these same visitors not laugh at those ludicrous advertisements in our daily newspapers in which they promote and flaunt their collection of so-called luxury developments? Reproduction photographs of European chateaus and formal gardens, ridiculously dressed models pretending to be aristocrats and the landed gentry, and one of my favourites - a man in hunting redcoat and jodhpurs and whip in hand standing next to a Maria Antoinette-look-alike in front of a Versailles-look-alike, all embellished with a thoroughbred sans saddles! 'Just what is going on?' I can easily imagine our visitors asking.

They would only laugh out loud at these pathetic depictions of what developers regard as luxury, and even more bizarre, that the purchasers of these smallish flats (for that is what they mostly are) should be gullible enough to buy into all that utter balderdash. If there were to be statutory provisions for trade descriptions, I am certain that there would be ample grounds to sue.

I have been feeling a constant thumbing down of culture in the past decade. The government and the oligarchs have done so little to encourage or enrich our cultural dispositions. The other evening, I was watching a film in which there was a scene of a sitting room with a rather good Renoir nude hanging on the wall. Suddenly, I noticed that her breasts had been blurred out by squares! How could any censor be so monumentally ridiculous? But it said a great deal about our level of education and appreciation.

Only this week, Tan Dun and Zhang Yimou , arguably two of the most distinguished Chinese artists in the world, composed and produced an opera on emperor Qin Shi Huang, that had a premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Placido Domingo was in the lead to boot.

Now, that's what I call a reasonably seminal cultural event.

Yet we in Hong Kong live in oblivion of it. Come on, Hong Kong! If we are really serious about making our city an international city, let's make sure our elitists are conscious of the necessity of culture and intellectualism and imagination.

Life is impoverished without these mental pillars, and if we want our children to inherit a place we treasure, we must treasure inheritance through heritage.

David Tang is the founder of the China Club and Shanghai Tang