WHAT DO A flamboyant expat, a famous Canto-pop composer, a filthy harbour and a striptease artist have in common? The answer: they're all involved in the CityFestival, which starts on January 15. Only at the Fringe Club in Central could you imagine such a disparate collection being brought together to create what, for the past 18 years, has been a benchmark of the state of Hong Kong's culture. The offerings will be as diverse as usual, but the atmosphere has changed - for the first time there have been mutterings about pulling the plug in 2003. The battle to find sponsors has worsened for arts groups since the September 11 attacks. In late September, CityFestival suffered a body blow when it lost its 'seven-figure sum' sponsorship from the airline network, Star Alliance, just when preparations were running full throttle. Fringe Club director Benny Chia Chun-heng says unless corporate sponsorship and public support improve, the 2003 festival may be dropped in favour of running a larger programme in 2004, the festival's 20th anniversary. 'This has not been an easy year for any of us. The CityFestival too has had to face economic strains,' he writes in the festival programme. 'But despite income contractions and the associated financial challenges, we believe that these adverse conditions will pass. Above all, we are keeping faith with the intrinsic value of the arts and the belief that when times are hard, even under threats of war and terrorism, the arts always get better.' The festival has always tried to avoid being an indiscriminate hodge-podge of events, which means Chia thoroughly resear-ches what Hong Kong audiences like. 'We really try to interact with various [arts] groups,' says Chia. 'We allow them the sort of participation that means we can take their initiative and all work together on it.' Budget constraints have not stopped the ideas flowing. The Spotlight event, in which the festival invites a city to showcase its arts, is especially promising. This year, the focus is on Vienna, with 19 artists, academics and curators visiting Hong Kong under the 'Reconsidered Crossings' project. Jazz, DJs and films will be showcased. Chia went to Vienna in May to lobby the government and arts bodies for support for the cultural exchange. 'It was a question of how do we showcase a city like that, which has considerable depth and range. We weren't going to show it in a traditional light. We don't have the budget to bring opera and orchestras over. But not many people perceive of Vienna as a contemporary city.' Vienna has become an events capital, one of the first European cities to go in that direction, says Chia, mindful of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's stated aim to take Hong Kong on the same path. Chia has been impressed by Vienna's ability to develop its arts on different levels. 'Music, especially, has become an important industry,' he says. 'They have invested a lot of resources into its development, not just to provide culture in the city. Viennese are very serious about their pleasures. They go about it in a methodical way.' The way the city makes use of the famed Danube is something else Hong Kong should consider, he adds. It inspired him to consider Hong Kong's main waterway, Victoria Harbour. CityFestival will host an Eco-Arts Fair by the harbour, which will include juggling, mural painting, storytelling, crafts, games and magic shows at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre's Piazza. Divers will take underwater photographs and artists will create works out of flotsam pulled from the harbour. 'One way or another, we underestimate the harbour's potential,' says Chia. 'There are a lot of hidden treasures in Hong Kong, but not that many people have access to them. As far as our harbour is concerned, there are the tankers and the ferries, but have we really considered what recreational value it has? Do we take it into account as far as tourism is concerned? And what state is it in?' Chia says that although green groups put a lot of resources into issues on dry land, little attention is paid to the harbour. 'Apart from Christine Loh Kung-wai's group [Civic Exchange] which lobbied against reclaiming the harbour, I'm surprised that very few people consider the state the harbour is in,' he says. 'They know we're pouring tonnes of raw sewage into it, but nothing is really done to clean it up.' CityFestival takes a further look at our heritage in adramatised history. Three Women Of Hong Kong, written by playwright Raymond To Kwok-wai - who has 10 sisters - and directed by Terence Cheng, is an attempt to reflect the social evolution of Hong Kong women; 'a silent revolution', as Chia calls it. Three Women dramatises the lives of Cantonese opera singer Tang Bik-wan, feminist writer Emily Hahn and a composite character Man Yuk-ying, invented to show the lives of ordinary women.. Tang's career, which spanned pre-World World II to the 1980s, moved from opera, to film, to her best-known role as harridan in several television soap operas. To worked with her when he was a child actor and knew of her on-set diplomacy and behind-the-scenes struggle for recognition and professional survival. Hahn was chosen because, as Chia puts it, 'we can't pretend Hong Kong has never been a colony. Using Hahn, we can show that aspect of colonial life, when colonial pride was at its peak and then she came in and turned this world upside down'. It's also a great love story. 'Our heritage dramatisations are part of an ongoing post-1997 reflection. All the time before then, when we were living in a colony, a lot of people felt their personal history was of little importance,' says Chia. 'Now people think more now of the city as our own. The things that happen here are important because this is our lived reality.' CityFestival tends to lend itself to themes. Shows about strong women and by strong women are among the main threads next year. Lam Man-yee, who has gone from being an angry composer of inaccessible contemporary music, to a writer for ballet and modern dance, then film and finally for Canto-pop superstars. In the late 1980s, in the middle of a flourishing career, she suddenly moved to New York. She returns for a visit with three varied shows. Lam Man-yee, Journey Of A Hong Kong Composer, will comprise a piano performance with a string quartet from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, dance music with City Contemporary Dance Company, DanceArt and Y-Space, and a jazz and pop concert. There will also be three comedy shows by two Melbourne women - Kim Hope's Overexposed and Sarah Kendall's War - and by a Chinese New Zealander - Secret Asian by Raybon Kan. There are 11 shows under the theme 'Less Is More', including Cracked, by Sydney's Skye Lonergan, which won an Edinburgh Festival Fringe First award. Mike Moran, meanwhile, is back after his hit production Captain Corelli's Mandolin last year. Did You Used To Be R D Laing paints an affectionate picture of the life and works of the pop psychologist, rebel and philosopher. Also back, although with a different cast, is the sell-out The Vagina Monologues by Manila's The New Voice Company. One of the most talked-about shows in the world, its many versions have witnessed stellar casts; in Manila, you couldn't get tickets. And just in case that's not enough for culture vultures, actress Ursula Martinez strips in Show Off. She's done it in London, Sydney and Edinburgh, too. Diversity is the name of the game for the Fringe, and not only in its shows. In recent years, events - rather than productions - have drawn many more people into the venue. The CityFestival depends for its survival on that ingenuity and energy. 'We've had to work hard this year, it's true,' says Chia. 'But what's the point of cutting stuff out here and there? Then it's not a festival anymore. We won't do that.' CityFestival takes place from January 15 to February 9. Tickets and information call the Fringe Club at 2521 7251 or visit www.hkfringeclub.com .