Artists protest at Cattle Depot clampdowns

It's a sprawling arts compound home to more than a dozen tenants but the Cattle Depot Artist Village in To Kwa Wan is now off-limits to the public, photographers and even promotional banners.

Anger over entry restrictions and government orders to remove banners at the village has been brewing for a long time. Yesterday, a group of artists voiced their complaints in a protest outside the Government Property Agency in Wan Chai, which manages the compound.

The village is housed in a converted Grade Two Victorian-era compound of red-brick buildings and sheds that was once the customs and excise office's livestock quarantine station. Its 15 tenants include art groups and individuals housed in private studios.

The simmering tensions came to a head last month when the government ordered the removal of an artistic work - a banner made by conceptual artist Ching Chin-wai.

The banner accused the government of being high-handed in the management of the compound and was put up as part of a nine-day-long arts event, My To Kwa Wan, organised by four tenants.

Alvis Choi, assistant manager at Videotage, one of the four tenants, said the removal order was ridiculous. 'Ching's banner was draped outside the door of a tenant. We got a letter from the agency saying that a clause of the tenancy agreement states that display of anything outside the premises of our shops is forbidden,' Choi said.

Videotage said the government went so far as to request the removal of innocuous banners showing only the details of the event.

Another tenant, Choi Yau-chi, co-founder of 1a which specialises in visual arts, said they were also frustrated by restricted entry to the compound.

'The security policy, which forbids walk-in visitors and allows entry to only those who get invitations from the artists, creates an image that the Cattle Depot is user-unfriendly,' she said.

In addition to restricted entry, photographic activity is also forbidden, with security guards buttonholing visitors at the sight of cameras.

Protest leader Ching Chin-wai said security had been beefed up recently.

'The tenancy agreement states that entry is restricted to [invited] visitors only. But the agency did not implement the clause in the past,' Ching said.

'Over the past several months, security has been so tight that security staff have registered visitors' ID information. Which arts village on earth would bar entry to the public and tourists?'

The property agency confirmed that tenants could not display banners outside their units without prior approval.

'The depot is not open to the public ... as it is not equipped with fire safety equipment, lighting, emergency access and hygiene facilities that meet the [licensing rules for] places of public entertainment,' an agency spokesman said.

'For security and management reasons, only visitors with the consent of the tenants are allowed to enter the premises. In order to avoid any nuisance ... to tenants or their visitors, photography is not allowed in the open spaces at Cattle Depot.

'The Development Bureau is planning to take over the management of the Cattle Depot ... The existing tenancy arrangements are to be maintained ... a tender exercise to identify a new management company is expected to take place soon.'