WITH HONG KONG businesses regularly falling victim to the city's exorbitant rents, the chances of struggling artists being able to afford space in prime locations seems unlikely. However, 15 arts groups have managed to do just that. All are housed in 600 sq ft units in the Foo Tak Building in Hennessy Road, a 30-year-old commercial block halfway between Wan Chai and Causeway Bay. The source of this miracle: a sympathetic property owner who offered participating groups rent of just $2,500 a month. Fired up after attending a conference three years ago on the lack of working space for Hong Kong artists, the owner decided to give fledgling arts groups a boost. At the time, the government had begun to recognise the potential of creative industries and floated the idea of turning disused industrial areas into arts villages. But all the talk has yet to amount to any concrete facility. Meanwhile the owner, who wants to remain anonymous, pushed ahead with his concept. He contacted video artist May Fung Mei-wah whom he met at the conference, and invited to run the initiative. She would assess potential groups, recruit suitable candidates and maintain a good mix of tenants. Fung declines to confirm if the patron is a board member of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council as rumoured. 'I'd say he's into arts and culture,' she says. 'Basically, he understands the need for affordable space. He thought he could do something as the arts groups' needs are very simple: an operational centre for arts administration, a small studio or a rehearsal space.' Fung concedes the selection mechanism is not ideal. Most groups chosen are non-profit, but the main criteria is that tenants should not be wealthy. Although groups are asked to submit a two-year proposal, 'we don't want to be very output-oriented', she says. 'As long as they know what they want to achieve and state it very clearly, we are OK.' The result is a vibrant artistic community scattered across 14 floors. The occupants include avant-garde poets and promoters of independent films. There's even an outfit offering education for the poor on the mainland. One flat is reserved to provide affordable accommodation to overseas artists participating in local events. Unlike initiatives such as the defunct Oil Street arts village in North Point, Foo Tak offers arts groups a measure of stability and the advantage of being free from bureaucratic interference. The Oil Street artists were forced to leave when the government repossessed the land for auction. Anthea Fan Wan-jen, an art curator and founder of free magazine Art Map and a.m. post, has been at Foo Tak for about a year. Fan launched Art Map two years ago because she wanted to have a publication which gathered arts-related information for Hong Kong and Macau. The free arts and cultural magazine a.m. post was first published in May last year. 'We didn't move to Foo Tak until last year because the government offered us a free 700 sq ft space [at the Shanghai Street Artspace in Yau Ma Tei]. But there were many restrictions. We were required to organise two exhibitions each month, but we didn't have the manpower to do that. It was very tough. The government was too demanding,' she says. The government lacks a coherent long-term policy on how to use the Shanghai Street space, Fan says. 'It's very dilapidated. Even the water pipes are rusty. Even if we agree to pay for repairs, the Arts Development Council would urge us not to do so because it's a hassle for them. They would have to write to several departments before it can be approved,' Fan says. With the Foo Tak landlord offering a two-year contract, she says, her outfit was able to map out a long-term development strategy. 'The landlord even renovated the flat for us. A self-sustaining organisation like us just needs a small space for such things as office administration,' she says. Plus, the central location enables better involvement of editors and reporters. Now Fan and her team have built enough of a foundation to expand abroad: they plan to launch a.m. post in Taipei at the end of summer. The 29s, a nine-member collective of artists, poets and writers, also found a home at Foo Tak. 'We need a space like that. Before, we would just gather in someone's home. We had lots of reference books, but we didn't know where to store them,' says founding member Kong Khong-chang. 'Now we are close to our partner bookshops and we can easily distribute books there,' he says. 'We wanted to show people that publishing is actually not a big thing. Anyone who has created something good can get their work published.' Kong says the collective sometimes designs books for other alternative artists who might have been rejected by mainstream publishers. For other occupants, Foo Tak has become a learning centre. Gulldy, a group of five new media artists, advocates a more unconventional use of computer design software. And since moving in two years ago, they've also begun organising workshops for tertiary students looking to explore more creative applications for software. Founding member Janet Chan Ching-yan says they set up the group when more established new media groups started running out of steam. 'We felt that groups such as Videotage have slowed down a bit in terms of creativity. May Fung encouraged us to set up this venture. We share the common vision that design is not just about clicking a few buttons in a pre-set program. 'Instead, Gulldy rewrote the codes so artists can create effects that aren't pre-set by the software supplier. 'When we create animation, say, a ball going from left to right, we don't just use the pre-set effects. We control the exact move of the object, how it bounces, and the distance it crosses,' she says. Gulldy's workshops have also proved popular with younger students. 'There are a lot of things that the schools don't teach. Sometimes, they might not even know if their work can be considered creative. We can really reach out to these young people,' Chan says. InD Blue, which promotes independent film among young people, also organises filmmaking workshops for teens. To cultural campaigner Ada Wong Ying-kay, the Foo Tak scheme is a prime example of an 'organic' arts hub - one started by the community - that often works more effectively than the government's elaborate schemes. Citing the Cattle Depot Artist Village in Kowloon, she says the centre was a failure. 'It shows the government lacks expertise in arts administration. There is no vibrancy because the groups are so loosely knit. They can hardly use the outdoor space for exhibitions [because of the red tape].' 'Foo Tak is a good example, but they probably need a common area where artists can really mingle,' says Wong, who is also chairperson of Wan Chai District Council. Meanwhile, the Foo Tak initiative will extend its vision of promoting interaction between artists. Fung says an artist, for example, could travel with education group Living Knowledge Communities when they teach in the mainland. 'This way they could get inspiration too.' And 'if one of the organisations becomes mature and financially stable, we may bring in new people and change the mix of tenants,' she says. Now that's probably what the Foo Tak artists' benefactor would call a good return on investment.