The government's non-committal attitude towards building the third phase of the West Kowloon Cultural District is not just an insult to the arts community, but also a betrayal of its aspiration to build a world-class arts hub, industry leaders say.
Cultural sector insiders say having a large-scale theatre and concert hall is fundamental, and pushing back the decision on building such facilities until after 2020 shows the government's reluctance to develop the performing arts.
"It seems like the government is casting a vote of no confidence in [performing arts] development," Hong Kong Sinfonietta CEO Margaret Yang said, stressing that investment in the arts required long-term planning.
On Wednesday, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor told the Legislative Council that scrapping the West Kowloon Cultural District's HK$23 billion basement because of its spiralling costs was not possible. The whole arts hub was estimated to cost just HK$21.6 billion in 2008.
"We need to look at the state of the city's cultural development to decide when [to build the phase-three facilities]," she said.
The latest plan is to deliver the phase-one facilities by 2017 and the phase-two venue, the Lyric Theatre, by 2019.
The other phase-two facilities, the Centre for Contemporary Performance and the Medium Theatre, which sit atop the express rail link terminal - completion of which has been delayed by two years to 2017 - may be combined into one. A decision on phase-three facilities, including the Great Theatre, Musical Theatre and Music Centre, will be made only after 2020.
"It would be a waste [to build the facilities] if our overall cultural development is not up to standard," Lam said.
But cultural industry leaders took offence at her statement.
Michael MacLeod, CEO of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, which is looking to move to the arts hub, said existing government venues did not offer the flexibility the orchestra needed to plan three years ahead, making it hard to compete with other international orchestras.
Theatre director Clifton Ko Chi-sum, a member of the arts hub's consultative committee in 2006, said the committee had recommended building venues of more than 2,000 seats housing long-running productions.
When the arts hub was first mooted in 1996, it was to include large venues for blockbuster and Broadway-type shows to attract tourists, he said.
Blockbuster productions like the recent Equus, starring Anthony Wong Chau-sang, and Fredric Mao Chun-fai's Tonnochy, starring Carina Lau Ka-ling, can only be performed 20 or so times because no venues are available.
"It's crazy now to think Hong Kong will become Broadway," Ko said, adding that having large-scale venues sooner would support an ecosystem that would allow the performing arts develop into a self-sustaining industry.