ON SECOND THOUGHT

A liveable city needs cultural riches, not just wealth

Our city might meaningfully join the list of liveable cities if we begin to prioritise people over materialism

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2012, 8:56am
 

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12 Aug 2012

For an over-crowded city of seven million people, Hong Kong leads the world in many key human and economic development indices. But why are its people still feeling so glum? 

Total number of votes recorded: 20

Last month, The Economist magazine voted Hong Kong the most liveable city. My friends thought this was a joke - so implausible that it made them shake their heads in disbelief.

This is the first time the city has topped so-called Liveable City lists (there are several of them). The usual top cities include the likes of Melbourne and Vienna because of their abundance of urban amenities and cultural depth.

How does Hong Kong stack up in comparison, then? We beat Vienna hands down in terms of food. For those who prefer culinary variety, Vienna definitely disappoints.

As for Melbourne, dear as it is to me, it lacks the same level of energy, density and intensity on its streets as we have in ours.

What about the cultural life in these cities? How important is it? And how do we compare? The poet W.H. Auden cast his vote for Vienna by buying a house nearby and spending his summers there.

Auden, who turned down what would have been the first Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to a British poet, was a connoisseur of cities. He chose Vienna for two very good reasons: drinkable wine and affordable opera.

Hong Kong can pretty much match other cities' lifestyles. But we are stymied for answers when it comes to profound philosophical questions, such as how cultured we consider ourselves to be.

In a place where being a property tycoon makes you not only famous but a role model, I think New York offers some inspiration.

The Big Apple, as New York is known, has gone through various stages of development. It is now a mecca for aspiring young artists and lovers of the arts alike. But it has not always been so.

Before the robber baron industrialists - the likes of Andrew Carnegie, Solomon Guggenheim and Henry Frick - decided to place their money along with their names on the museums and concert halls, the American city was not exactly culturally vibrant.

But now its rich cultural offerings can more than compensate for its traffic gridlock, steamy hot summers, and the constant noise of police sirens.

It's popularly believed that it was Andrew Carnegie who said, "To die rich is to die in shame". What that meant was that one should use one's wealth to the very last cent to do charitable acts, instead of leaving it behind unproductively after one has passed on.

This might give pause to the rich in Hong Kong who, instead of leaving cultural legacies, have only left behind family feuds over money.

Why do I pick on the rich? Money does make an impact on things in general and on Hong Kong's cultural environment in particular at this stage of the city's evolution.

Finally, how liveable a city is does not only depend on the variety and number of restaurants available, or how easily one can get to a beach or country park. It is about its people - their aspirations, open-mindedness and lifestyle choices define the city they reside in.

I, too, will cast my vote for Hong Kong when the property tycoons talk about what books to read, instead of what stocks to pick and properties to buy. The same goes for when the television stations provide air time to poets, painters and composers, instead of investment gurus who forecast our financial future.

Benny Chia is the Fringe Club's founder and director. He sits on several arts boards, including the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. benny@hkfringeclub.com

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