Consultation seeks more concrete ideas

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 October, 2009, 12:00am

Any lingering doubts about the government's commitment to the development of the arts and the suitability of Henry Tang Ying-yen to head the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority can now safely be laid to one side. The government is convinced that the word 'culture' is synonymous with the word 'concrete' and poor old Tang is so entirely clueless that he has even started to embarrass himself.

At least it is to be hoped that he is capable of self-embarrassment because at a recent consultation forum he was asked when he last attended a performance by a minor arts group. In response he listed two events he had seen, both of which were shows by performers belonging to Hong Kong's nine major performing companies.

Told that this was the case he looked puzzled and promised to bone up on the subject. Then, just in case there was a scintilla of doubt that Tang had even the slightest idea of what he was talking about, he joked that members of the Hong Kong Philharmonic could increase attendance by wearing shorts and flip-flops instead of tuxedos. It's hard to know where to begin in tackling stupidity at this level.

But none of this will worry an administration that really doesn't get it. It is now in the midst of one of those consultation exercises that mendaciously give the impression that the public will have a great say in the development of the arts hub. But the public are not being asked about content; the focus is entirely on form, but even here the questions are designed to be irrelevant. For example, the great unwashed are asked whether they would like an ambiance that is: a, relaxing; b, exciting; c, traditional; d, contemporary; e, inviting or f, inspiring.

Meanwhile, as plans are being laid for keeping the concrete mixers in business the government is significantly cutting its financial support to arts groups.

It would be wrong to assume that malice lies at the heart of the government's fixation on form as opposed to the content of Hong Kong's cultural life. Indeed, embedded in the bureaucracy are many officials both genuinely committed to the development of the arts and knowledgeable on the subject. But, right at the top of the tree are policymakers who only have an interest in show. They are obsessed with meaningless plans to build the biggest cultural centre, to control what goes on there and to be able to boast of a commitment that sounds good but in practice is little more than an exercise in vanity.

Clapping on the sidelines are members of Hong Kong's elite who assume it is a fine thing to be associated with culture but have a limited understanding of the term.

There is no convincing argument for the concentration of the arts in one place but every reason to give encouragement and support to the arts throughout Hong Kong. Modest donations to struggling theatre groups, artists, even to the more avant garde, are likely to do far more for the development of the arts in Hong Kong than a complex of buildings destined to remain barren.

Only the bureaucrats and their misguided supporters believe that consolidation is the key to success.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur