Too tied to one idea
There is no doubt about it: Hong Kong hasn't enough venue space for arts and cultural events. This was pointed out in a study and report in 1997. Ten years on, the shortfall against demand has increased further. No private venues have emerged in response to this demand because of the high-land-price policy, a focus on land revenue and a lack of appropriate zoning.
Will the West Kowloon Cultural District encourage diversified and balanced development? To build the long list of venues planned there, the government has devised a financing scheme based on selling linked property development rights in West Kowloon. In this way, the 'all-in-Kowloon' straitjacket thinking continues at the expense of diversity.
Key questions remain unanswered. Where is the performing talent and the management experience for West Kowloon going to come from? The quality of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department's management of venues and museums has been questioned for at least a decade. Privatisation would improve the operations and groom new people. If we started today and invested a little effort - such as making the old Central Police Station site available for Fringe-Club-type activities - then new skills could be developed before West Kowloon opens.
This would add to the mix of land uses in Central, where hotels, bars, offices and apartments would benefit from the synergy. In North Point, retaining the Sunbeam Theatre to support the development of Cantonese opera would revitalise a tradition, and provide activities for local residents and tourists at the growing list of hotels there.
Refurbishing City Hall and expanding its neighbouring facilities - such as the Planning and Infrastructure Exhibition Gallery - would add to the mix of land uses along the Central and Wan Chai waterfront.
The only real arguments for creating a monopolistic cluster in West Kowloon, other than political convenience, are complaints about the lack of alternative activities accessible on foot around the existing venues. To ensure that places like the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and the Arts Centre are not cut off from restaurants and bars, we need solutions that benefit the city as a whole.
Privatisation is the solution for the venues and museums planned for West Kowloon. The new owners would immediately add harbour-facing bars, restaurants and retail outlets to their properties. They would allow busking and street performances - all at little or no cost to the community
How about making use of the former airport land at Kai Tak? There are proposals for a large, multipurpose sports centre near the Kai Tak station on the future Sha Tin-Central rail link, but its viability is being questioned. So, surely, there would be benefit in combining various mega performance venues in Kai Tak?
Consider a 'common wealth' sort of development, accessible and affordable to locals. Is that idea reflected in a large, integrated structure that seeks to maximise its appeal to tourists? Will another large, intensive property development answer the local community's needs in Kowloon?
To build a vibrant district linked to nearby areas, West Kowloon needs smaller-scale developments and open, public spaces at the ground level.
Under the new financing model, income from retail, entertainment and dining business will pay for programming expenses. Does that fulfil the government's policy objective of creating an environment that is conducive to free artistic expression?
With no alternative on the table, the arts and culture community is asking few questions - afraid to cause any further delay in this long-awaited injection of resources.
It's telling that the arts and culture community has so easily accepted the reduction in investment from the original HK$30 billion to HK$19 billion, and its less secure source of programme funding. Has cultural and artistic integrity been traded for expediency?
The confusion over this issue can be seen in the push to give the cultural district's authority a greater say over cultural policy matters than the public and the cultural community.
Hong Kong needs a cultural commission with statutory oversight of all cultural development and arts-education-related matters. And we need more, not fewer, organisations managing arts and cultural venues.
In point of fact, we already have the integrated arts and cultural hub we want: it's called Hong Kong, specifically the core areas around the harbour. This 'Hong Kong Cultural District' has grown organically over many years.
Now it needs to be nurtured and cared for by strengthening the infrastructure and software needed by the cultural and creative industries. Hong Kong would benefit greatly from a more diversified and comprehensive plan for our cultural and arts development.
Paul Zimmerman is convenor of Designing Hong Kong Harbour District