Drawing on past will keep our culture fresh

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 July, 2010, 12:00am

Our government finally seems to have come to grips with the idea of keeping our past alive. It has nominated four local festivals to be named by the Ministry of Culture as national intangible cultural heritage. Recognition will help promote the events, but that is not wholly where the significance lies. By accepting the importance of the celebrations, authorities here are committed to ensuring their preservation.

That is a big deal for organisers of three of the festivals, which are struggling to survive. The Chiu Chow Yu Lan Ghost Festival, Tai O's dragon boat water parade and the Tai Hang fire dragon dance are endangered by dwindling resources. In the case of the first, it is a loss of venues due to redevelopment, and for the other two it is mostly a lack of young participants. Now that the government has declared them of cultural significance, it has to do its best to keep them alive.

The Cheung Chau Jiao Festival, popularly known as the Bun Festival, does not have such a problem. Organisers have taken it down a commercial path that draws tourists and keeps the tradition thriving. A true sense of community spirit has been created. By being included on the government's list, it gains even more exposure; if it is given Unesco world Heritage status, as organisers hope, the riches for Cheung Chau people will be even greater.

But that is not all living heritage is about. Festivals strengthen community identity and purpose. They draw members together to share knowledge and skills and foster understanding and appreciation. That is good for the people involved and Hong Kong generally. It is insightful and educational and perhaps even exciting for spectators. If there is a financial side, then that is an added bonus.

Whether the festivals are added to the national register is immaterial to the government preserving them. In the case of the ghost festival, that means finding several major sites for the three days of activities a year. The Chiu Chow community is 1.2 million-strong and its needs have to be catered for. Ad hoc arrangements that have been interrupted by redevelopment projects in districts like Kwun Tong cannot continue for so important an occasion.

Organisers of the fire dragon dance and the dragon boat parade have a more challenging problem: dwindling numbers of young people to carry on the traditions. The Tai Hang and Tai O areas have changed much in recent decades and have fast-ageing populations. Finding 100 men to be dragon bearers or 300 others to row boats is not easy in such circumstances. The costs in moving people and equipment about or paying for feasts can be prohibitive.

Again, that is where authorities can help. Promotion will make people who once belonged to communities or whose ancestors were part of them more aware of their roots. They may be engendered with a sense of belonging that draws them to take part.

Governments over the years have done a poor job of protecting our heritage. They thought progress meant pulling down the old and building high-density structures. Only with the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier and Queen's Pier in 2007 was it realised how important our past is. But keeping or revitalising buildings, monuments and places that we hold close is the easy part; considerably more difficult is preserving that which cannot be seen but is just as significant.

The government's seeking national recognition of the festivals reflects the shift in thinking. Maintaining the traditions of our various communities is integral to Hong Kong's identity. We need diversity and creativity, and that lies in our rich past. For our city's sake, authorities have to ensure that our culture lives and breathes anew.