A bureaucratic brick wall stifles popular culture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 2008, 12:00am

Civil servants are paid to enforce rules, but they should exercise judgment and discretion when the occasion demands it. A case in point is the fate of a large, brightly coloured mural painted by local artist Ray Yip on a public slope in Shek O.

The mural depicted a sea view from above Shek O's main beach. It appears that many - although not all - of those living nearby liked it. Yip lives in the village, so his work could be construed as an attempt to beautify the neighbourhood. This is, after all, something the government has been encouraging people to do in their neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, the artist neglected to seek permission from the relevant department. The Highways Department, which has control over the slope, received a single complaint about Yip's work late last month; it quickly sent a contractor to whitewash the artwork, which it considered graffiti.

The department cannot be faulted for efficiency, but its judgment is open to question. It is true that Yip bears some responsibility. He painted public property without permission. He should have alerted the relevant authorities beforehand. But his work, now painted over with an ugly, light grey coating, appeared to have artistic merit and could be seen as an asset for the community. Given this, department officials should at least have made an attempt to collect feedback from residents, including Yip, before deciding what to do next.

Much of the graffiti found overseas is associated with young gang members and street crime. No such association exists in Hong Kong. Graffiti here usually takes the form of art painted by well-meaning artists who hope to liven up neighbourhoods or make a statement. But there appears to be little danger that other people will follow Yip's example. Painting graffiti is not popular in Hong Kong. The government has moved to preserve some graffitipainted by the late Tsang Tsou-choi, better known as the King of Kowloon. This shows it can recognise artistic value, or at least be responsive to public demands in such instances.

But officials need to recognise that people want a better quality of life and more creative space in which works of art and culture must be allowed to originate spontaneously at a local level, rather than be bound by a top-down cultural policy. If the government wants the city to become a more vibrant place, it needs to relax, whenever possible, bureaucratic rules and allow more space for artists to express themselves.