Three festivals a test of Hong Kong's cultural development
Three festivals within a month will help set the direction of the arts hub and give clues on how such events can be sustainable
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Hong Kong is finally getting what it has long asked for. For three of the next four weekends, starting today, people can enjoy live music and art performances under the sky by artists and musicians from home and abroad at the spacious outdoor West Kowloon reclamation site.
The three events - the Renaissance Festival, Clockenflap and Freespace Fest - taking place today, next weekend and the weekend of December 15-16 each have their own artistic direction, festival nature and organisation.
It is hard to know which will attract the biggest crowd, but more important than any rivalry is the fact that the three festivals will shed some light on Hong Kong's cultural development - in particular, the West Kowloon Cultural District and how to keep cultural events sustainable.
Louis Yu Kwok-lit, executive director for performing arts for the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, says the three festivals are experiments for the arts hub and will help steer the future development of the Great Park - the open space at the heart of the arts hub.
"Renaissance focuses on artists from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. Clockenflap targets a mix of homegrown and international artists, while our Freespace Fest is dedicated to various art forms and encourages free participation and free experiment," Yu says.
The arts hub team must learn from the experience of hosting festivals with different organisational needs, so that in future it can accommodate a variety of cultural events, he says.
"In the coming 12 months, the design of the park will be finalised. And these three events will help decide the future design of the park."
Under the arts hub's current plan, the Great Park will have a lawn big enough for 6,000 people to enjoy a picnic under the sun or 10,000 to enjoy a standing outdoor night concert.
Inside there will be a Freespace festival, which "aspires to become a hip hub for live music, theatre, dance and other cutting-edge cultural events" with a capacity of up to 300 and an outdoor theatre seating 500.
The demand for outdoor events is expected to grow. A 2010 market analysis for the culture hub, prepared by Deloitte, predicted that the potential market for performing arts events would grow from 873,000 to more than 1.1 million in the next two decades. The projected attendance at outdoor tented and open-air ticketed performances in 2015 is 187,110, and this is estimated to grow to 236,890 in 2030.
Deloitte's projection suggests demand for outdoor events is strong. But compared to Taiwan and the mainland, Hong Kong lags behind in putting on outdoor music festivals and cultural events. "There aren't that many venues that can support outdoor concerts," says Mike Hill, festival director of Clockenflap. He adds that noise restrictions make it even harder to find an appropriate venue.
This explains why there have been so few memorable outdoor festivals in the past decade.
In 2001, Commercial Radio organised 903 Rock Forest, the first two-day outdoor rock festival in Hong Kong featuring mainly local rock and indie musicians.
From 2003 to 2006, there was Rockit, an outdoor indie and rock concert in Victoria Park with a mix of local and international line-ups.
Wild Day Out, first held in 2002, featured at various venues and ended in 2010.
Clockenflap first took place in 2008 at Cyberport, but had to move to an industrial building in 2010 due to noise complaints. Last year, the festival - which was free until this year - made it to the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade attracting 18,000, without any noise complaints.
Now that the West Kowloon site has become a viable option, event organisers are hoping to rewrite the fate of Hong Kong's outdoor festivals.
Today's Renaissance Festival is the first large-scale public event organised by the newly established non-government Renaissance Foundation. Backed by leading cultural figures from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland, it supports independent cultural development.
Headline acts for the inaugural festival are foundation chairman Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, Taiwanese singer-songwriter Sandee Chen and mainland rock musician and artist Zuoxiao Zuzhou, who has written music for the work of artist-activist Ai Weiwei . The festival is free but prior online registration is required.
Foundation director Leung Dont says that more than 9,000 people have registered for admission but he estimates about 5,000 will turn up, most of them aged between 18 and 35.
"They will be a sophisticated crowd and regular audience for cultural events. But they might not be familiar with the whole line-up. So to them, this is also a journey of discovery," Leung said.
"We made it free for the first year because we wanted to educate the public. In the past the only music festival references we could draw on were Western ... but this doesn't have to be the case. We want to find out how the culture of music festivals can develop in Hong Kong. We can convert the unconverted."
Like Renaissance, the two-day Freespace Fest organised by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority will also be free. Freespace Fest is a hybrid of various art forms: music, dance, outdoor performances, and collaborative programmes. It is expected to attract 12,000 people.
But there's no such thing as free lunch. The reality is that someone has already paid the bill. There is a price for arts and culture. The issue is how to keep the events sustainable.
"In the past, no one wanted to organise these events, and there was a lack of venues. Now we have all these, but there isn't enough money around," Yu says.
Renaissance, Leung says, is backed by private funding. Organisers refused to disclose the budget, merely saying that it is "a figure that proves the enormous support and expectation from the arts and culture community". But Leung admits it doesn't have many sponsors this year.
Freespace Fest, on the other hand, costs more than HK$5 million - of taxpayers' money - to produce, without sponsorship.
"There is a cost to these events," Yu says. "A free event is not sustainable. So how to sustain these events? To survive, you either rely on ticketing, sponsors or public money. Do we always rely on taxpayers' money? Do we have a sponsorship culture? Are people willing to pay for tickets?"
Although the arts hub enjoys an initial endowment of HK$21.6 billion, the Post previously reported that an additional HK$9.2 billion to HK$16.4 billion would be needed to maintain the scale and quality of the planned 40-hectare cultural precinct, according to a budget estimate carried out by University of Hong Kong Professor Chau Kwong-wing.
New funding sources - either more from taxpayers' wallets or support from the private sector - are needed.
The arts hub recently rented out the site for a luxurious wedding party for Dragonair founder Chao Kuang-piu's granddaughter Veronica and entrepreneur Evgeny Klyucharev.
The West Kowloon authority entered a short-term tenancy agreement with the government earlier this year for part of the headland area of the site so it could begin work before the land is granted to it. It declined to reveal how much the rent was, saying that it was a "market rate". But it has been reported at nearly HK$10 million - enough to fund two Freespace Fests.
West Kowloon said that other than the construction of infrastructure, the priority would be to accommodate house programmes and partnership projects, followed by arts and cultural events. For other events, factors such as site availability and feasibility as well as the organisers' credibility and track record would be taken into account. But the arts hub's management is still exploring various ways to finance its activities.
"We hope to make the district a financially sustainable and viable operation going forward," says an authority spokesman. "Commercial events can generate revenue to offset part of the expenditure of running the arts and cultural activities, as well as site management and maintenance costs."
Yu believes that the first year will be used to develop the character of the event. "Next year we must find sponsors," says Yu.
Next weekend's Clockenflap has already established its character. The two-day festival features a mix of local indie acts and international names including Primal Scream and De La Soul.
But keeping the festival sustainable is what Clockenflap's organisers have been working on.
Hill reveals that last year, when the Leisure and Cultural Services Department was still managing the West Kowloon site, Clockenflap had to be free due to the department's policy that public access to the site had to be maintained at all times. With less than 5 per cent of its budget coming from sponsors, organisers faced a deficit of several million dollars.
This year, an adult weekend pass costs HK$590 if booked in advance. The organisers also offer concessionary tickets to students. Hill hopes to attract 20,000 music lovers.
Clockenflap will rely heavily on ticketing, as commercial sponsorships account for only 8 per cent of the HK$10 million budget.
Hill says the West Kowloon management is much more understanding of the reality of organising cultural events. He declined to disclose how much the rent is, but says it costs a single digit percentage of the total budget. The festival has been given a "good rate", but a huge amount has been spent on production as well as air tickets and accommodation for artists.
"If we can reach the target, we can break even," Hill says. "But we have taken a lot of risks."
Hill has been frustrated by his struggle to find resources to help incubate homegrown events like Clockenflap.
He says he has checked out the Tourism Commission's Mega Events Fund, but it finances only "internationally-acclaimed mega events" taking place in Hong Kong, or events run by non-profit organisations. And Clockenflap fits neither of those categories.
Hill says this in turn will only benefit overseas events, as few could stage mega events on a non-profit basis. "To us this is ridiculous," he says.
The dichotomy of the commercial and the cultural in Hong Kong troubles Hill, a Briton who has made Hong Kong his home.
"In the UK, this is a multibillion-pound industry. Our vision is to give Hong Kong something better than Summer Sonic [a music festival in Japan]. Festivals need to break even in order to be sustainable and grow," he says.
Uncertainty about venues has made it difficult to secure sponsors that might want a deal for two to three years, he adds. However, Hill still hopes that the three festivals together can get some questions answered.
"These coming three weekends will be critical for Hong Kong's [cultural development]. If anything goes wrong, things will change. But we want people to realise that this kind of event can sustain," says Hill.
On the bill: Hong Kong, Taiwanese and mainland artists including Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, Sandee Chen and Zuoxiao Zuzhou
Admission: Free, but registration in advance required
Date: December 1-2
On the bill: Local indie acts and international names including Primal Scream, The Klaxons and hip-hop legends De La Soul
Admission: HK$590 in advance (weekend), day pass HK$390, student discount available
Date: December 15-16
On the bill: A hybrid of various art forms: music, dance, outdoor performances, and collaborative programmes. Performers include jazz star Eugene Pao, circus arts troupe Performcrew and dub reggae band Sensi Lion
Admission: Free - register online from Monday at freespace.hk