Cultural push risks leaving the masses behind

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2010, 12:00am

Local governments in the Pearl River Delta are forging ahead with ambitious plans to develop the region's cultural credentials, but as far as migrant worker Huang Lianyu is concerned, Dongguan's Yulan Grand Theatre may as well be on the moon.

Huang, who arrived in Dongguan from Henan 10 months ago to work at a Taiwanese-owned electronics factory, says she and the millions of other migrant workers in the city would rather see more money in their pockets than a performance in the 1,600-seat theatre.

Even though the factory where she works is only an hour by bus from the city centre, she and her colleagues rarely venture there for shopping and relaxation, preferring to socialise with fellow villagers in the rows of grey buildings that house the assembly lines and dormitories of the 'world's factory'.

'I would rather have a pay rise than such cultural facilities,' she said. 'We have our own entertainment.'

Dongguan's Central Square, which houses the theatre - one of the biggest on the mainland - a city library and a museum, is just one example of Guangdong officials' determination to make a name for the province on the cultural front.

And it's a campaign that is intensifying, with Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang launching an ambitious plan this summer calling for government spending on culture to double from next year, turning the province into a national and international cultural centre by 2020.

One of the mainland's most important economic engines, Guangdong contributes more than a tenth of its gross domestic product and last year accounted for about 30 per cent of the country's manufactured exports. But it has long been labelled a cultural desert and that is something local governments want to change.

The Dongguan theatre, built for more than 600 million yuan (HK$695 million) and opened in 2005, was an early attempt to shift the balance.

More recently, the provincial capital's Guangzhou Centre for Performing Arts opened in May, six months before the start of the Asian Games, after many delays. It cost 1.4 billion yuan, 65 per cent more than the initial 850 million yuan budget set by local officials six years ago.

Also six years ago, Shenzhen announced plans for its own grand theatre, due to open next year at a projected cost of 1.4 billion yuan.

Another factor fuelling the surge in cultural construction projects is the desire to upgrade the region's industries from labour-intensive manufacturing to high-end technology and cultural industries.

Dongguan party secretary Liu Zhigeng announced this year that the city would invest another 5 billion yuan, a fifth of the province's cultural development budget, in the next five years.

Feng Ling is deputy director of the Dongguan Library, the only one on the mainland to have won the American Library Association's award for international innovation.

But she said that when she told her schoolmates in her hometown in Wuhan , Hubei , that Dongguan had such a big and modern library, her friends reacted with shock and did not believe her.

'They initially only knew that Dongguan was famous for having many hotels involved in the sex industry,' she said.

Dongguan's city government has poured millions into its 'Library City' dream and by the end of last year, 28 of its 32 districts and townships had established at least one public library.

'We have more than 30,000 books and 50 per cent of our readers are migrant workers,' a staff member at the village-level Dalang Changtang Library said. But she admitted that since the library opened in May last year, Changtang's village committee had not bought any books 'because they thought it was not necessary [for a new library to buy new books]'.

Xie Zhulian , from Dalang township's propaganda office, was drafting a proposal on the town's cultural projects for the city government recently when he was asked what a small town with population of 68,000 permanent residents and 400,000 migrant workers could do to implement top leaders' thoughts. 'All 32 towns and districts in Dongguan are working on this and I think the whole province as well,' he said.

He explained that they needed to outline a five-year plan for cultural development, highlighting the importance of each project, whether it was about preserving traditional cultural heritage or promoting a basketball team, and apply to the city government for funding.

As a town-level official acutely aware of migrant workers' living conditions, Xie said improving their cultural lives was a challenge facing not only Dongguan but the whole PRD.

But he emphasised the necessity of building the theatres for elite audiences. 'It at least gives us a chance to offer residents more options,' Xie, a Jiangxi native who moved to Dalang eight years ago, said.

Lacking a university - Dongguan boasts only a community college - the city has struggled with a lack of talent for a long time and has had to recruit talented individuals from other provinces. That lack of talent has long been regarded as another barrier to cultural development.

Feng's boss, Li Donglai , is from Jilin . Feng said it was a good time for educated professionals to be in Dongguan because its government was serious about wanting to boost the cultural industry.

But newcomers also have problems. 'It is hard to find people [with a similar educational background] to chat with and make friends,' said a senior editor with a Guangzhou-based news group who has been working in Dongguan for three years.

Experts say cultural development requires patience and care, and that hardware is just part of the equation. Professor Guo Weiqing , a public administration expert at Guangzhou's Sun Yet-sen University, said hardware such as theatres or such projects 'only for elites' did not equal cultural development.

'Government should think about what people, those migrant workers and youth, really need,' Guo said. 'Theatres will be useless if the public do not like them and the libraries will also be less valuable if the readers do not like the books in them.'

Long-time music fan Kuang Yuheng and his girlfriend found this month that even the hardware can be problematic. Visiting central Guangzhou for the first time to see a popular opera, they had high expectations but were disappointed by the acoustics. 'The theatre has a great design and outlook and most of its interior facilities are good, but I do not know why the sound quality on that night was so poor,' Kuang said.

Budget blowout

The Guangzhou Centre for Performing Arts cost 1.4 billion yuan

The budget for the project, set six years ago, was 850 million yuan, giving a blowout of: 65%