Movie examines 2003 HarbourFest fiasco

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 6:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 6:28am

With concerts by The Rolling Stones and Prince, the festival was billed as the event that would energise the city in the aftermath of Sars. Instead it went down in history as a bitter failure. Now, 10 years on, it's back - as HarbourFest, the movie.

The festival was held from October 17 to November 11, 2003, and was part of a multimillion-dollar programme to revive the economy in the wake of the deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Underwritten by the government, the event was organised by InvestHK, under the auspices of the Economic Relaunch Working Group, in collaboration with the American Chamber of Commerce. However, costs soon ballooned to HK$100 million for big names such as the Stones and Prince as well as Neil Young and Carlos Santana.

What went on is being re-examined in the 90-minute documentary HarbourFest, which is to hit cinemas early next year.

"The cameras are rolling as we speak and we're just finishing up filming," director and writer Tim Noonan said. "I think the motives behind it all were genuine.

"It has to be looked at in context. There was a plague in our midst in 2003."

Noonan has spoken to all the main protagonists. What he found was that Jim Thompson, former head of the American Chamber of Commerce, while eager to tell his side of the story, was not even remotely bitter and had few regrets. Noonan also plans on talking to representatives of the bands involved.

"At the time, Carlos Santana was very vocal about how much he enjoyed the event and the significance of it in helping to relaunch Hong Kong," said Noonan, whose company Collier Road Media is funding the movie.

"It's my job to present the facts as they were. The viewers can make up their own minds on whether HarbourFest was a worthwhile venture or not."

Noonan's biggest challenge is to make the story relevant to an international audience. To do this he wants to convey the spirit of the Hong Kong people at a time when many feared for their lives.

During Sars, the absenteeism rate for hospital workers in the city was nearly zero. This was not the case when Sars struck the mainland, Taiwan and Canada.

"Why was there this sense of duty in Hong Kong but not in other countries? It was because there is a communal pride here like nowhere else," he said.

"I have an affinity for the people who make Hong Kong run, as opposed to the people who run Hong Kong."

Tim Noonan is a Sunday Morning Post columnist