Street performance is as much a part of culture as what goes on in an art gallery or a concert hall. To many in Hong Kong, though, it is less associated with art and entertainment than with begging. Perceptions are slowly changing; police and shop owners, though, are not always appreciative, understanding or tolerant. But if Hong Kong is to approach the cultural heights of London, New York or Paris, as the government would like, those with an artistic flair have to be given the widest possible public space to show and refine their talents.
Busking, to use another term, is not illegal. There are subjectively enforced laws on creating a public nuisance, noise and obscenity, though. That means that, even in the two most popular areas for showing off perceived talent, Mong Kok's Sai Yeung Choi Street and Great George Street in Causeway Bay, performers can be moved along, charged or even arrested. It is not a comforting feeling for buskers to have citizens think of them as being down-and-out or disabled, to worry about nearby shops complaining and to be monitored by police.
Understandably, some buskers have opted for remoter and less crowded areas to perform. But the formal setting of the government-hosted 'Open Stage' street performances at Sha Tin Town Hall or a public entertainment licence from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department should not be the only safe options for an audience and appreciative spare change. A court ruling in 2010 stated, after all, that street performers were protected by a law guaranteeing the freedom to engage in literary and artistic creation. That means that anyone who thinks they have talent and wants to show it off should be able to at any reasonable place and time.
The right and a will are not all that is needed, though: public interest, appreciation and tolerance are also required. As Hong Kong becomes more culturally aware, that is gradually setting in. If authorities also play their part, the high standards of public artistry so widely on show in other world capitals will also one day be ours.