The heavy costs of keeping alive HK's cultural festivals

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 September, 2011, 12:00am

The Cheung Chau Bun Festival, the Tai O dragon boat water parade, the Tai Hang fire dragon dance, and the Yu Lan Ghost festival.

All four events this year finally made the list of national intangible cultural heritage. Unfortunately, the benefits of the honour are pretty intangible too.

Dwindling interest among younger people and rising costs threaten the future of the festivals, locals warned. Enthusiasts are wondering what meaures need to be taken to ensure the survival of these cultural traditions.

The heritage status does not promise any concrete support or benefits in keeping the festivals alive. That means each festival still has to overcome the basic challenges in sustaining these traditions: having the money to run the events, and finding willing participants.

Additional challenges will arise if the neighbourhoods redevelop or long-time residents move away.

Randy Yu Hon-kwan, islands district councillor and Tai O native, said he hoped the new national status prods the government and Hongkongers to actively conserve these cultural traditions.

'[The city] has been through a lot of development and change. But despite all that, these things still remain - so they are valuable and worth the extra effort to conserve, after all that we've been through,' Yu said.

The four festivals were selected from 349 cultural items and nominated in 2009. Their selection in June was the first time Hong Kong received such recognition from the Ministry of Culture. Tsang Tak-sing, home affairs secretary, had said that all four festivals possess unique characteristics and historical value that transcended time, which enabled them to survive modernisation and urbanisation. Intangible heritage is 'traditional, contemporary and living at the same time; inclusive; representative; and community based', according to the the UN's heritage organisation Unesco. It is not the 'cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next'.

Unesco perceives the celebration of intangible cultural heritage as an important way to defend against globalisation and the effects of mass production and cultural homogenisation, which have been hurting cultural diversity.

The new national status makes the Hong Kong government responsible for preserving the traditions.

'We've never had a lot of government support. It had always been about community effort and participation,' said Yung Chi-ming, chairman of the Cheung Chau Bun Festival Committee.

Every year, the festival needs about HK$2 million to run, he said, adding that the government gives the organisers about HK$100,000. The rest is raised locally - a difficult task, year after year.

Yung said he would like to set up a museum on Cheung Chau to tell the story of the Bun Festival and the island's history.

Li Ying-keung, 53, a member of the Tai O Dragon Boat Association, said: 'A stronger sense of local pride and understanding of local history is needed for [the dragon boat parade] to continue.'

Yu said: 'We are proud of our heritage, so it is all the more important to teach our next generation to understand and appreciate our culture.'


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