The government was warned yesterday that its efforts to identify and protect the city's cultural heritage could end up destroying Hong Kong's treasures through commercialisation.
It recently released a list of 480 items of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) after seven years of painstaking research in response to the UN Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Florence Hui Hiu-fai, undersecretary for home affairs, said safeguarding cultural heritage could be done in creative ways that fit old traditions into contemporary lifestyles. "We'd be delighted to promote ICH from a design perspective," Hui told the South China Morning Post.
Watch: Cheung Chau Bun Festival
"Commercialisation is inevitable, but the monetary terms also educate people about the value of our heritage," she said.
Some Hong Kong designers were already including ICH in their concepts, she said, and more designs evolving around the theme of ICH would boost the public's interest in learning more about the city's traditions.
Noting that young Japanese women still wear kimonos, she said: "What about our cheongsam? It is one of the items in our inventory." Traditional cooking methods could also be preserved with more creative marketing to revive the products' popularity.
Dr Liu Tik-sang, director of the South China Research Centre which compiled the initial ICH inventory, warned that focusing too much on making money by turning certain heritage rituals into spectacles for tourists would distort their original meaning.
"Some of these traditions exist because they hold our communities together, not because they bring cash," said Liu.
He cited the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, which is on China's national ICH list, as an example. "It is now a tourism event. But what does it mean to locals?"
Cheung Chau fisherman Lai Tai-sing said he now shied away from the huge crowds that flocked to the island for the bun festival instead of participating as he used to. "It makes Cheung Chau very popular but it's not for us local people," said Lai.
Hui said the ICH inventory would bring new possibilities for cultural tourism, targeting not only foreign or mainland tourists, but also Hongkongers.
She added that while the tourism industry had increasingly embraced cultural heritage, more training for staff was necessary. "The tour guides must know the stories and history behind these landmarks," she said.
Hui also believed that PMQ had a "role to play" in the process, referring to the newly refurbished former police married quarters in Aberdeen Street, Central, which has become a creative cluster selling local designer goods.
Hong Kong began working on the list in response to the UN convention in 2007. Titled The First Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory of Hong Kong, it includes Cantonese opera, egg tarts, umbrella making and forms of kung fu, and the Cantonese language itself.
As well as the bun festival, China's national list includes Tai O's dragon boat water parade, the Tai Hang fire dragon dance and the Hungry Ghost Festival. These are also on Hong Kong's list.
Hui said that while the government had no plans to set up a designated fund for ICH, "the most important thing about safeguarding ICH is not about money, but getting people to learn and inherit our traditions".