Secretive deal on Hong Kong Palace Museum will further erode trust in authorities
Vivienne Chow is deeply disappointed by the lack of public consultation on the project, not least because it runs counter to the vision for the West Kowloon Cultural District, where the museum will be located
Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is probably the least popular Santa Claus Hong Kong has ever known. Just before Christmas, the chief secretary and chairwoman of the West Kowloon Cultural District gave us a “festive surprise” by announcing that a branch of Beijing’s Palace Museum would be built in the arts hub, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover this year.
As it turns out, her idea of a gift is very different from that of many Hongkongers. The deal immediately drew controversy – a reminder of how deeply torn society has become post 1997.
The issue is divisive. Those who support the project accuse detractors of failing to understand the cultural and historical significance of the Palace Museum. To their mind, exhibiting some of the world’s most precious Chinese works of art in Hong Kong will not only enrich the city’s cultural life, but also raise its profile and boost tourism. Some even attack critics for their “lack of love” for the nation.
The problem here, however, is not about the worth of the Palace Museum collection, or even the extent of anti-China sentiment in Hong Kong. It is about how the deal was reached.
Since it was first proposed in the late 1990s, the West Kowloon Cultural District project has been hit with numerous setbacks, delays and budget overruns. Nonetheless, over the years, the project managers have strived to be accountable to the public and the stakeholders. This was the reason the single development approach collapsed in 2006, and a statutory body was set up in 2008 to oversee its development, following the recommendation of a consultative committee.
Such transparency is protected by the West Kowloon Cultural District Ordinance, which states that the authority should consult the public on matters concerning the development or operation of the facilities. A consultation panel was set up to gauge public views.
The progress of the West Kowloon development might be slow, but it is promising. Though most venues are still under construction, events are ongoing. “Freespace Happening”, a curated programme of cultural and musical events, has already earned a solid following.
Rather than adopt an early proposal to import top institutions like Centre Pompidou or Guggenheim from the West, the arts hub decided to make a name for itself with a visual culture museum, M+, focusing on 20th- and 21st-century art and design. Exhibitions staged by the curatorial team of the museum-in-the-making have not only had a decent turnout, but also ignited public debates about contemporary art and culture.
West Kowloon’s vision of focusing on “contemporary art and mixed performing venues”, as the hub’s former chief executive Michael Lynch put it, fills the gap of Hong Kong’s cultural ecology. Nearly 20 years on, the public’s trust in the costly West Kowloon project has begun to take shape.
But the secretive deal to impose a branch of the Palace Museum in West Kowloon, with HK$3.5 billion of funding from the Jockey Club, and the appointment of architect Rocco Yim Sen-kee to build it, has tarnished such hard-earned trust. Even the arts hub’s consultative panel member, Ada Wong Ying-kay, said she only found out about the plan on the day it was announced to the press.
The decision has ruined the original vision of the hub, the result of a decade-long consultation. It was almost a slap in the face to those who sincerely contributed their time and specialist advice to shaping the vision.
How will this Hong Kong branch of the Palace Museum fit into the city’s cultural landscape when we already have government museums dedicated to showcasing Chinese works of art, including those from the Beijing museum? Was Lam implying that importing a museum brand from outside Hong Kong was a must because our overall cultural development was not up to standard, just like she told the Legislative Council in 2014? Consultation might not be the best way to make decisions about a city’s cultural development, but people’s voices matter, and culture should not be dictated by the elite.
It most certainly felt like a political decision, as Lynch noted, rather than one made for the good of the project.
In a statement issued last Friday, the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority rejected the criticism. It said “consultation” was held among senior board members, and that Yim was chosen not just for his expertise, but also his familiarity with the project. But its answers do not address the key concerns.
Whether this was a symbolic gesture by Beijing to claim Hong Kong as its property 20 years after the handover is debatable. But Lam, who is tipped to make a run for the chief executive post, has certainly raised her political capital by showing her loyalty to the central government while sacrificing the Hong Kong system and the people’s trust.
Lam defended the decision to keep the project a secret, saying the involvement of the central government made it necessary. Does it mean that if she were to become the city’s next leader, Hong Kong people would be kept in the dark about local matters if they happen to also involve Beijing?
Shortly before the handover, the city’s last British governor Chris Patten spoke of his anxiety for Hong Kong, which was “not that this community’s autonomy would be usurped by Peking, but that it could be given away bit by bit by some people in Hong Kong”.
Twenty years on, Lord Patten might have proved himself to be more a prophet than just a politician.
Vivienne Chow is a journalist and critic specialising in arts and cultural politics. She is the founding director of the non-profit Cultural Journalism Campus and an honorary lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong