Bureaucratic delusions of grandeur

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2007, 12:00am

The bureaucratic geniuses who came up with the breathtaking scheme to erect a major harbourside building without windows, ordered the erection of the truly hideous and absurd Hong Kong Central Library, and seem intent on destroying as much of our city's heritage as possible are contemplating a new plan for the so-called West Kowloon Cultural District.

It might be assumed that, with this track record of cultural insensitivity, the bureaucratic minions would approach this task with a certain diffidence, but recent press reports suggest the opposite, and Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen will shortly announce that he has new ideas for building this monster complex of theatres, museums and art galleries. But, surely, it would be far better to scrap the project before more public money is wasted and Asia's 'world city' is exposed to ridicule.

The first scheme, a misconceived plan for putting notoriously philistine property developers in charge of cultural development, is apparently dead. In its wake, so it is rumoured, there is a plan to put the bureaucrats firmly back in the saddle so they can lavish taxpayers' funds on what senior officials lovingly refer to as a 'legacy project'. Whose legacy are they talking about? Their own, of course. And here lies the appalling truth behind the scheme.

Bureaucrats are obsessed by legacies. They want buildings bearing their names and, best of all, really big projects that will remain as testament to their rule.

If there is a justification for a vast cultural complex, surely its proponents can answer this question: why do various art forms work best when located in a single area? This is a vastly different question from that of whether Hong Kong needs more cultural facilities, not least because the clear answer to the latter is 'yes'.

In the rest of the world, it is hard to find cities with a formidable cultural reputation based on geographic concentration. In Britain, there was a successful attempt to build a cultural complex on the south bank of London's River Thames, but it was one among many competing venues and the authorities never attempted a comprehensive cultural grouping like the one contemplated for West Kowloon. So, why is Hong Kong so different that it needs everything in one place?

That question was addressed by the Swire group when the first scheme was discussed, and the company came up with a far more imaginative plan to build on the existing cultural centres in Tsim Sha Tsui and around the harbourfront in Central, alongside a more limited amount of development in West Kowloon. This plan was pushed to one side by the bureaucrats determined to have their mega-project, which focuses on structure and has little to do with substance.

Substance should be the key for a policy genuinely designed to help the cultural sector. Substance does not necessarily come from lavish expenditure. On the contrary, small sums of money can make a real difference: a little cash for a struggling dance group, or the provision of rehearsal rooms for musicians are among the things which produce results. But they would not provide a tangible legacy for the bureaucrats who authorised the expenditure.

Free-market purists will argue that there is no need for the government to spend a cent on cultural development because culture, if required, will emerge from the market, assuming there is sufficient demand. Fortunately, this argument is ignored by those who recognise that society is enriched by a flourishing cultural life even if only small minorities are active participants.

Hong Kong is not the cultural desert its detractors pretend it to be. There is a surprisingly high degree of talent and interest in the arts, but it is not best served by the erection of a vast marble and concrete complex that apes the great cultural centres of Europe and America without providing the soul and substance that make them great.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur