West Kowloon Cultural District

Time to rethink the vision for West Kowloon?

Fuzzy vision and problematic leadership - not delays and rising costs - are the cultural district's biggest problems, say board members

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 6:21am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 11:40am

Sixteen years after the idea of building an arts and cultural district on reclaimed land in West Kowloon emerged, the site that promises to transform Hong Kong's cultural development is finally taking shape: a handful of facilities, including the Xiqu Centre and visual culture museum M+, are expected to be ready from 2016 onwards. Performances and exhibitions staged locally and abroad are gradually establishing the arts hub's brand.

This, however, doesn't mean everything about the West Kowloon Cultural District is bright and beautiful. Because of surging construction costs, the HK$21.6 billion endowment established in 2008 to build all facilities can now only cover the costs of the first two phases by 2020. The status of large venues such as the Great Theatre and the concert hall in the third phase is unknown.

The government has to pour in another HK$23 billion or perhaps more to build a basement that can contain all traffic underground to honour the design by Norman Foster's firm. A two-year delay in a cross-border express rail link terminating in the area means construction of the three venues sitting on top of the station will also be delayed.

But as the saying goes, problems that can be solved by money aren't real problems.

What really haunts the West Kowloon Cultural District are its fuzzy vision and problematic governance, say members of the arts hub's board and the city's cultural community.

Six years after the establishment of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, they are calling for a revamped board led by a chairman with vision and a management team headed by a CEO who can turn that vision into reality.

"What is the positioning of West Kowloon? How does West Kowloon fit in the cultural development of Hong Kong?" asked Arts Development Council member Ng Mei-kwan.

Danny Yung Ning-tsun's years of serving on the authority's board have so frustrated him that he has vowed to step down "unless drastic changes take place". He is among the 11 government-appointed board members who have served on the board for the six years since it was established in 2008. They are supposed to be replaced under a rule that limits their term to six years unless special approval is granted.

"We need to revisit the vision and mission and to see how to apply that in 2014 and in the long-term development of culture in Hong Kong, greater China, Asia and the world," he said.

Yung isn't alone in his sentiments. Some other board members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, shared his view.

"There was never a chance to brainstorm the vision for the arts hub on the board level," said one board member.

The stated vision for the cultural district has changed over the years. The idea of building an arts and cultural venue on reclaimed land in West Kowloon first emerged in 1998 when then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa proposed "a new, state-of-the-art performance venue" on the site by Victoria Harbour. The original hope was that it would boost tourism. Promoting culture was a secondary consideration.

The plan for just one venue was expanded into a plan for an arts district. In 2001, the government said the project's objective was "to enhance Hong Kong's position as Asia's premier centre of arts, culture and entertainment and create a new look for Victoria Harbour".

The project came under increased scrutiny when the government opted for a single developer for the 40-hectare site. Critics lamented that the development was being treated as a construction project rather than a cultural project. Smaller developers, shut out of the game, were also unhappy. Eventually all bidders withdrew in 2006 when the government asked the successful one to fork out HK$30 billion to set up a foundation to run the arts hub.

In 2007, a report issued by an advisory committee appointed by the government reaffirmed the nature of the West Kowloon Cultural District, insisting that it was "an arts and cultural project, not a property development project". Money spent on the arts hub was an "investment in culture and the arts" to attract and nurture talent, and to provide "an impetus to improve quality of life" and "a cultural gateway to the Pearl River Delta", the report said. The project, said the report, should not be "entirely demand-led, but more supply-led and vision-driven".

The establishment of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority followed in 2008. The chairman position goes automatically to the city's chief secretary with the board members being appointed by the chief executive. Henry Tang Ying-yen became chairman in 2008, Stephen Lam Sui-lung in 2011 and Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in 2012. Their contributions were criticised for failing to meet expectations.

Tang, a well-known wine collector, proposed building a vineyard in the district's green space. Stephen Lam's tenure as board chairman was short and insignificant. Carrie Lam was criticised for being out of touch with the strength and vibrancy of Hong Kong's arts community.

Carrie Lam had come in for criticism after suggesting the third phase of construction - featuring the large venues - should proceed only when the city became more culturally developed.

"It showed her little understanding of the city's cultural development," said one board member.

The law specifies the board should have eight to 15 non-government members, of whom at least five must work in the cultural field. Including government representatives, there are now 23 members on the board. Replacing the 11 government-appointed board members whose terms are set to expire poses a tough call politically for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

One board member said the appointment of the board was more or less a balance of vested interests between different parties. "It's not an easy board. The board is too big," said the board member.

Although the Home Affairs Bureau, which oversees cultural development in the city, says the government has the authority to grant exceptions to the six-year rule and keep some veteran board members, many worry that Leung will appoint pro-establishment allies who know little about culture.

The board is required to have least five members who have "good standing" in the cultural sector or have extensive knowledge about the field.

Besides Yung, an experimental art pioneer, Yip Wing-sie is the artistic director of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, Jenny So Fong-suk is a Chinese University fine arts professor, Raymond Fung Wing-kee is an artist and architect and Ma Fung-kwok is a lawmaker representing culture and sports.

Most of the rest of the board members are either politicians or industrialists and professionals such as accountants, lawyers and engineers.

A board member said it was essential to have members from various backgrounds as developing an arts hub involved urban planning, construction and finance issues.

But Yung said the government had followed its tradition of favouring lawyers, accountants and the commercial sector in board appointments.

All but two of the 10 committees and subcommittees under the West Kowloon authority - including the four arts panels - are chaired by such people.

Lan Kwai Fong Group boss Allan Zeman heads the performing arts committee. Victor Lo Chung-wing, chairman and chief executive of Gold Peak Industries, who is also an art collector, heads the museum and interim acquisition committees as well as the subcommittee on the exhibition centre.

The refusal to appoint cultural practitioners to chair the arts committees showed that "the government still doesn't trust the cultural and education sectors", Yung said.

According to the organisation's current structure, the authority has six executive directors and one general counsel reporting to the CEO.

Yung said this was not dynamic enough. He also took issue with the separation of performing arts from visual arts, which he said was an outdated perspective based on facilities in the late 1990s.

The structure of the arts hub and its committees should keep up with the times as different disciplines converged, Yung said.

"What about literary arts?" he asked. Ng, who represents literary arts on the council, saw the exclusion of this area as a failure by the authority to see the bigger picture of the city's cultural development.

Yung suggested the goal of the arts hub should be to do more than just organise activities and host performances. It should look at arts creation as a whole.

The Xiqu Centre for Chinese opera could serve as a think tank for intangible cultural heritage, he said.

Freespace, a 450-seat facility, would become a laboratory for research and development for performing arts, according to a Legco document submitted by the West Kowloon authority.

Yung added that space set aside for offices could be used by arts entrepreneurs and a planned 400-room hotel could host international cultural exchanges.

And the park - the most important venue in engaging the public - should set the standard for public art strategy beyond displaying a few sculptures here and there, Yung said.

"But I don't see any public art strategy or policy there. And does it belong to visual art or performing arts? No one has said anything yet," he said.

The West Kowloon arts hub development will continue to remain at the centre of cultural and political debate in Hong Kong. But the world's cultural community is also keeping a close eye on the project. According to Yung, how the arts hub fares will be crucial to the future of Hong Kong.