Carrie Lam

Former chief of Hong Kong arts hub questions HK$3.5b museum deal

Michael Lynch expresses surprise that the project was pushed through without the scrutiny of lawmakers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 December, 2016, 5:50pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 December, 2016, 4:07pm

A former chief of West Kowloon Cultural District has questioned the politics of the surprise HK$3.5 billion deal to recreate Beijing’s Palace Museum in the arts hub.

The criticism came as the dealmaker herself, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, visited the capital on Thursday for another cultural event.

Speaking to the Post, Michael Lynch, chief executive of the district’s governing authority from 2011 to 2015, said: “It fascinates me that a discussion on a project of this scale would not have gone through the scrutiny of [the Legislative Council].”

He took issue with the announcement by Lam in Beijing last week of what seemed to be a hastily arranged plan for Hong Kong to have its own version of the Palace Museum. Lam is widely seen as a potential candidate for the coming chief executive race.

“It looks like a very powerful delegation going to Beijing to announce something the people of Hong Kong haven’t discussed. It seems to me it is related to politics rather than the overall development plan for West Kowloon,” he said from his home in Sydney, Australia.

“Clearly something has happened and I guess that reflects some of the intensity of politics in Hong Kong since I left last year.”

Officials should remember, Lynch added, that “we were doing West Kowloon not necessarily to win the confidence of Beijing or anywhere else. We were doing it as a project for the people of Hong Kong”.

The 66-year-old Australian recalled it took years to chase money and “we found it difficult for the Jockey Club to commit to a project or event. It was a surprising turn of events I would say,” referring to the $3.5 billion pledge by the Hong Kong Jockey Club for the project.

The huge amount of money, he said, would be better spent on the original plan, of a world-class concert hall, which was what Henry Tang Ying-yen – Lam’s predecessor as chairman of board of West Kowloon Cultural District – discussed in 2010 with Edo de Waart, former artistic director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

“A concert hall would be a perfect project. The site is there, the work would have been done,” Lynch said.

The art veteran said he was perplexed by the decision on the Palace Museum, which entailed “to release a major piece of plan, the architect being appointed, no competition, no tender, no discussion on where the building is going to be, or how the building is going to fit into the approved development plan by the government of Hong Kong.”

He remembered “clearly in the development plan and the master plan, there was only one museum and the rest was dominated by performing venues.” Any change to the plan, he said, “would have to go through town planning and public consultation processes.”

All this, he said, meant the museum project was “more of politics than good cultural planning” and “not the sort of surprise I would want Santa Claus bringing me if I was still running West Kowloon,” referring to Lam’s announcement of the project on December 23.

Lam previously dismissed concerns about a lack of transparency over the city’s deal with Beijing to build the new museum, saying it would be embarrassing if a public consultation threw up opposition to it.

On Lam’s remarks, Lynch also told Cable TV: “That would gobsmack someone who is running the authority – it’s rather extraordinary. It’s a very different way than the way that we were doing. It seems to break all of the rules that apply to the other venues.”

Lynch also said the inclusion of the Palace Museum deviated from the district’s original plan because “West Kowloon was meant to be focused much more on contemporary arts and then a mix with performing venues”.

“They got the other museums in Hong Kong that deal with historical and antiquities ... and something has changed without explanation,” he complained.

Lam has yet to respond to Lynch’s comments. Before concluding a two-day visit to Beijing last night she unveiled a screen, known as the “Jianfu Screen”, at the Palace Museum to acknowledge five individuals and organisations for their donations to the museum’s conservation work.

They included three groups chaired by Hong Kong tycoons, including the China Heritage Fund, chaired by Ronnie Chan Chichung, a property developer and supporter of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, which donated 100 million yuan (HK$111 million).

Meanwhile, University of Hong Kong postgraduate student Cary Lo Chun-yu, a co-convenor of activist group “JR Group”, said they would apply for a judicial review against the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority over the decision to build the museum unless it promised a formal public consultation in accordance with the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority Ordinance.

Additional reporting by Eddie Lee