Hong Kong has food lovers aplenty, but where are its art lovers?

Kelly Yang laments the inadequate support for, and appreciation of, the arts in Hong Kong, without which creativity will never flourish

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 12:27pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 3:35am

Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey are opening new restaurants in Hong Kong. But, really, we don't need more new eateries. Instead, we need to address the dearth of street music, poetry readings, storytelling, writing competitions, art and other free, cultural activities.

I dare say we've become obsessed with food. Restaurants have become our most popular gathering spots. Even the way we look at food has changed. At a recent lunch with a friend I hadn't seen for years, the first thing she did was spend 10 minutes in silence taking photos of her sandwich.

Of course, a healthy diet is important. But what about our literary diet? What is everyone reading these days? Book store Eslite stopped being open 24 hours some time ago. Recently, literary agent Kelly Falconer pointed out in the Financial Times how our city habitually ignores literary art. As a writer, I'd love to see more free events to promote writing and reading. Currently, only a handful of literary events, such as the upcoming Hong Kong Book Fair, are not prohibitively expensive.

Besides events and talks, we also need more opportunities to showcase and recognise literary talent. Each year, Singapore's National Book Development Council organises many prizes for writing, including the Singapore Literature Prize. I wish Hong Kong would follow suit. Such competitions not only encourage aspiring writers; they also benefit the community as a whole.

Similarly, the visual arts world needs an overhaul. Art in our town seems to have gone from being a vehicle for political and cultural expression to a high-end status symbol, akin to a Chanel handbag. Ernst Beyeler, the Swiss art dealer who helped found Art Basel reportedly once said, "If I can't sell something, I just double the price." That's the attitude many in Asia now have towards art. Not surprisingly, last month at Art Basel, Chinese and Hong Kong tycoons spent millions without even blinking an eye.

But art is not supposed to be reserved for the well-heeled. It's supposed to be for everyone. Art is one of the most powerful forms of social critique, and it should be open and accessible. Yet, when French street artist Invader recently came to our city and painted 48 thought-provoking and controversial works all over Hong Kong, a record 80 per cent of his pieces were removed in less than two months.

While I don't condone graffiti, I want our city to offer more free and spontaneous creative opportunities. In California, where I grew up, the streets were a musician's stage, the beaches were art studios, the bookstores were poetry slam venues, and the parks were gathering places for strangers to come together to play chess. Yet, here in Hong Kong, even setting up a lemonade stand is difficult.

Creativity is the essential ingredient to any thriving city, especially a multilingual, multicultural city like Hong Kong. If we truly want to be Asia's world city, we've got to be more creative about everything, not just food. This is one problem that can't be fixed with "just a little bit of butter".

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, a writing and debate centre for students, and the author of several children's books. She will be a speaker at next month's Book Fair. kelly@kellyyang.edu.hk