No cultural desert, but not quite an oasis

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 July, 2007, 12:00am

Once ridiculed as a cultural desert, Hong Kong can now take pride in the diversity and prolificacy of its artistic scene, at least on the surface. Attendance at this year's Hong Kong Book Fair, which closes tomorrow, is set to reach a record high.

With the star attraction of a magnificent Song Dynasty scroll depicting a panoramic scene during the grave-sweeping Ching Ming Festival, an exhibition at the Museum of Art entitled The Pride of China has been a huge success.

Yesterday, cultural policymakers, academics and creative entrepreneurs from the region converged on Hong Kong for the opening of the fifth annual Asia Cultural Co-operation Forum.

Later this year, the government plans to publish a set of fresh proposals to develop the West Kowloon waterfront into a cultural hub - of sorts - to help elevate our status as a cosmopolitan city.

More cases could be cited. But beneath the surface of this vibrant cultural life lies a host of oddities in the city's socio-cultural scene. Take the case of the controversy over a 1789 painting of Cupid and Psyche on the cover of a book of romantic and mythological stories, produced by a Taiwan-based publisher, which was on sale at the book fair.

The Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority had approved the book's sale but decided to review its decision following a complaint by a visitor to the fair.

According to a spokesman for the Trade Development Council, the organiser of the event, Tela had expressed the view that it was 'quite marginal' and confirmed the book could still be put on display for sale.

Some Chinese press reports said Tela staff had, at one point, advised the publisher not to put the book on sale, on the grounds that it was a 'marginal' case.

The way the book narrowly avoided being classified as indecent by Tela censors is reminiscent of the controversy over the display of one of the world's most famous statues, Michelangelo's David, in a commercial building more than 10 years ago.

More recently, another morality watchdog - the Obscene Articles Tribunal - faced a challenge over its classification of editions of the Chinese University Student Press' sex survey as indecent.

And, in April, a magistrate overturned a tribunal ruling on pictures of a 14-year-old pop star wearing a flesh-coloured latex bra - published in Easy Finder magazine - that it had classified as child pornography.

Last week, however, saw the media giving prominent coverage to sexy pictures and juicy remarks by a karaoke hostess who came into the spotlight after being photographed with RTHK head Chu Pui-hing outside a bar in Causeway Bay.

The sensational coverage by some mainstream Chinese newspapers is hardly surprising.

Obsessed with what they believe to be a topic that appeals to readers, some Chinese newspapers are adamant that sex stories sell - never mind their poor taste.

Poor taste and sensationalist coverage in the Chinese media, combined with ridiculous rulings by the morality watchdogs over creative works, have reflected some unwelcome facets of Hong Kong's cultural canvas.

Although it should be at the vanguard of good morals, decency and civility, the Hong Kong media has suffered from a problem of declining quality and credibility. This is due to its failure to make good use of its power and influence in facilitating positive change in society.

Holding the power to implement rulings on indecency, government bodies such as Tela and the Obscene Articles Tribunal have left much to be desired in finding a balance between morality, decency, creativity, diversity and tolerance.

True, few people will now dismiss Hong Kong as cultural desert. But is it now a cultural oasis or hub? Not quite.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large