Cantonese opera artists cry foul after US arts college gets building

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 February, 2009, 12:00am

An American arts college has won its bid for the former North Kowloon Magistracy building, a decision decried by Cantonese opera artists.

The Savannah College of Art and Design, based in Georgia, will turn the former court building into a branch campus for a digital media university. Its president, Paula Wallace, said the college would target students from all over Asia: 'There are not many specialised arts and design colleges in Hong Kong. We see a great demand here.'

The college will spend HK$150 million on renovation and will not seek government aid. Its conservation plan will retain the building facade, and convert two courtrooms into a digital studio and a lecture hall. The college has experience in preserving historic buildings, having done so in the United States.

The new campus, which is expected to open in 2011, will provide 1,500 degree places and charge a tuition fee of US$27,000 a year. Ms Wallace said the programmes were expensive because it was a private institution and the equipment was costly, but added that many scholarships would be available.

Chinese Artists Association chairwoman Liza Wang Ming-chuen challenged the vetting committee for handing the site to a foreign institute.

'[Savannah College] has so much money. They can afford to just buy a building. Why are we using public money to support a foreign group?' Ms Wang asked.

'When I learned the news at mid-day, I wanted to cry, not just because we have failed, but also because of the government's half-hearted claim that it supports Cantonese opera. It is all lip service,' Ms Wang said.

Ms Wang believed her association's proposal to convert the building into a Cantonese opera centre was very creative. She demanded that the vetting committee make the grading of the applications public.

Freeman Lau Siu-hong, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Design Centre, said bringing in a foreign institute like Savannah could be a good investment as it would attract foreign technology and expertise - exactly what the city needed if it wanted to become a design hub. But he also questioned whether giving such resources to a foreign institute was the best option.