Space to be creative: it's all in the mind

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2008, 12:00am

Prominent painter Pang Jun was full of hope that he would be able to use his talent to illustrate the unique features of Hong Kong. But he could hardly have imagined that his work on the streets of the city would land him in trouble.

According to the Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao, Pang was interrupted three times by security guards or police as he tried to finish some paintings in Central, on The Peak and on the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade over a 10-day period.

'It seems to me Hong Kong has less freedom than before,' he said. 'It was a cultural desert 30 years ago. It's still the same today.'

Pang, who studied in his youth under Xu Beihong - an authority in oil painting - taught at Chinese University in the 1980s before moving to Taiwan, where he was a university professor in the arts.

Following his retirement, he visited Hong Kong last month and plans to capture scenes of the city for an exhibition here.

'I feel ashamed of Hong Kong,' he said. 'It's a pity. I feel deeply about Hong Kong. The first thing that came to mind after my retirement was to do an exhibition here. I didn't anticipate I would be given such a [welcome].'

If not for the fact that Pang is a well-known painter, the troubles he encountered may not have hit the headlines.

Hongkongers are renowned for their law-abiding mentality and the importance they attach to public order. Thus, it seems they just accept that activities like street painting should be stopped if they are causing a nuisance.

According to Ming Pao, the police were quoted as saying that they had received a complaint against Pang for obstructing public space near the Central-Mid-Levels escalator as about 30 onlookers thronged around him.

Recalling the occasion when he was interrupted by security officers on The Peak, Pang said that he was only able to finish one of his works after he bought a coffee at an outlet, which then gave him a bit of 'space' for his creative work.

Pang's plight highlights the contradictions facing the arts, and the cultural landscape, in Hong Kong.

On the one hand, artists like Pang face pressure not to cause an obstruction when pursuing their art in public places.

The other side sees the government striving to turn the city into a cultural hub and a powerhouse of creativity. To that end, it is seeking the Legislative Council's consent for a massive HK$19 billion funding for the West Kowloon Cultural Development and the necessary legislation to set up a statutory body for the cultural facilities.

Top officials have floated the idea of hosting prestigious arts and cultural events, to help boost the city's image as a cultural hub.

The standard of Hong Kong's museums and performing-arts venues may still fall short of those in international cities like London and New York, but it has been able to provide a variety of world-class arts performances for local audiences and international visitors alike.

However, Pang's plight raises questions again about how committed the government and society at large are to promoting arts and culture.

The Treasury is awash with cash, so the administration is in a stronger position to finance the building of world-class structures. But whether it is prepared, and equally committed, to provide the 'software' to go with this hardware - creating ample space and an environment conducive to creativity - remains in doubt.

Much has been said about the growing importance of creativity to the city's long-term development.

One of the basics that should be available to artists and ordinary people alike is a free, open and hassle-free environment that allows them to stretch their creative wings.

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