West Kowloon arts hub delays threaten to choke Hong Kong drama and music

Progress has stalled once more on an ambitious arts hub in West Kowloon as a lack of decent-sized venues chokes the city's performing arts scene

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 5:23am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 11:40am

After award-winning actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang and Canto-pop star Hins Cheung King-hin took a final bow before a full house at the Amphitheatre of the Academy for Performing Arts on June 1, the cast and crew of Equus was relieved, a producer said. The Hong Kong cast performed the Tony Award-winning play by Peter Shaffer in 21 sold-out shows over more than three weeks. The show just broke even.

To keep production costs to HK$5 million, some crew members took 30 per cent of their usual fees, while others accepted lai see, or gifts in red envelopes. "Otherwise the show could have cost HK$8 [million] to HK$9 million to produce," said Joyce Cheung Pui-wah, the show's producer and the administrative director of Dionysus Contemporary Theatre.

Things could have been easier for the Equus producers if parts of the West Kowloon Cultural District had been completed on time.

In May, government officials announced that construction of a large theatre and concert hall in the West Kowloon Cultural District would be delayed, with no new deadline for their completion. It was the latest blow in a series of delays and resignations that have hindered the project.

Music and theatre producers say the construction delay directly affects the future of performing arts in Hong Kong.

In 2008, when the legislative council approved a HK$21.6 billion endowment for the project to build the arts hub's performance venues, the first 15 of them were to be ready by 2015. Arts groups counted on the opening schedule, commissioning plays, lining up tour dates and planning productions.

When the delay was announced, with no foreseeable opening date, performing arts administrators were stunned. They said that without those large performance venues that could accommodate long-running shows, they couldn't plan productions, nor woo investors to finance them.

"Investors are always around looking for projects, but there are few available because we can't secure venue dates," Cheung said.

The delay stems from another construction hold-up: the MTR Corp's two-year wait to finish building an express railway to the mainland. Two of the performance venues are to sit on top of the line's terminal, which is to be incorporated in the arts hub.

In addition, the design process took longer than expected and construction costs skyrocketed, said Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, chief secretary and chairwoman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

The authority estimated last year that the project could cost HK$47.1 billion, more than twice the endowment of HK$21.6 billion. Plans for the arts hub, for which a design by architect Norman Foster called City Park was adopted, include a 17-hectare basement through which road traffic will flow. That component is alone expected to cost HK$23 billion - money that is expected to come from the government. The authority provided no new cost estimates after announcing the delay.

To control costs, Lam promised lawmakers that the endowment would be enough to pay for two project phases. The first includes an outdoor park and the a venue called Freespace, which consists of a 450-seat black-box theatre and an outdoor stage for big events.

Also in the first phase is the Xiqu Centre designed for Chinese opera, slated to open in 2016. It will be followed in 2017 by M+, a visual culture museum. The Lyric Theatre, a dance space with 1,200 seats, is expected to open in 2019.

The hub's second phase, expected to be finished in 2020, includes the Centre for Contemporary Performance and the Medium Theatre, both of which are slated to sit atop the high-speed- rail terminal. Their construction has been postponed thanks to the hold-up with the railway.

The timetable for other major theatres and the concert hall - the third phase of the arts hub - remains unknown: the proposed Great Theatre, with more than 2,000 seats, and the Musical Theatre and Music Centre, an 1,800-seat concert hall and a 300-seat recital hall, respectively. The arts hub authority has no cash to build them.

Decisions on phase-three venues will be reviewed after 2020, Lam said.

That has infuriated arts organisations.

Arts administrators were further piqued when Lam seemed to say that the cultural hub could wait until Hong Kong's cultural groups improve.

"It would be a waste [to build the facilities] if our overall cultural development is not up to standard," Lam told lawmakers in May.

Orchestra administrator Margaret Yang, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, said: "It seems like the government is casting a vote of no confidence in [performing arts] development."

The main obstacle to cultivating performing arts in the city is the lack of venue space.

Productions that can sell a lot of tickets, such as Equus, are forced to cram into smaller spaces and limit their duration. Cheung, the Equus producer, said the show's backers wanted an extra week of performances, but the venue was not available.

Neither the Lyric Theatre at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) nor the government-run Cultural Centre's Grand Theatre - the only two centrally located venues of their size, seating 1,181 and 1,734 respectively - could host the show.

Equus producers had no choice but to choose the HKAPA's Amphitheatre, a 600-seat venue lacking the sound and lighting system the production needed. Cheung said the producers paid HK$300,000 to rent extra sound and lighting equipment - money that they couldn't recoup with extra ticket sales.

There aren't enough theatre seats, but there's a growing appetite for the performing arts. The total audience for performing arts events increased from 2.9 million people in the 2007-2008 season to 3.3 million in the 2010-2011 season, according to the Arts Development Council. The number of ticketed shows also rose, from 4,867 in 2009-2010 to 5,340 in 2010-2011.

Hong Kong urgently needs venues that can host blockbusters, in order to boost its theatre industry, said Clifton Ko Chi-sum, theatre director and CEO of commercial theatre group Spring-Time Stage Productions. The arts hub was conceived in the late 1990s to attract tourists, designed to include large venues that could stage long-running theatre and musical productions such as those that play on Broadway in New York and the West End in London.

It seems like the government is casting a vote of no confidence in [performing arts]
Margaret Yang

Tickets to Tonnochy, a drama about 1970s Hong Kong set in the infamous Wan Chai nightclub that will star Tony Leung Ka-fai and Carina Lau Ka-ling, are selling quickly, said Cheung, the show's executive producer. The HK$15 million show is booked into the Lyric Theatre at the Academy for Performing Arts but was forced to break its run in half because of venue availability. The first 10 shows, already sold out, are scheduled for July and the run's second half is set for September.

"A show with this star power could have run for 100 days," Cheung said.

Fredric Mao Chun-fai, theatre director and West Kowloon performing arts committee member, said the arts district needed to change the way it has assigned the hub's future theatre space. The Xiqu Centre, which is slated for Chinese opera performances, might be useful for Chinese music concerts as well. The proposed Lyric Theatre, which is slated for dance, could be used for plays and shows.

"West Kowloon isn't just about how many buildings are built. It is about the content," said Mao, who is directing Tonnochy.

Hong Kong has 45 performing arts venues, more than half of which the government runs. Mao said the government's inflexible management system, which requires bookings one year in advance, had limited the venues' use by professionals.

In its quest to achieve world-class status, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, must plan performances and book musicians three years in advance, chief executive Michael MacLeod said.

West Kowloon can change that, Mao said, through "a holistic plan" that would distinguish it from the existing government system, and create a laboratory for new works.

While theatre administrators and directors can still push for change to the proposed space in the hub's first two phases, the music sector is stuck. The city now has one 1,434-seat concert hall at City Hall and a 2,019-seat concert hall at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, but orchestras say the facilities and acoustics at those venues are not good enough for "Asia's world city".

"A world city needs a real concert hall," Yang said. World-class acoustic spaces train their audiences' ears, making appreciative listeners demand better quality, she said.