Hong Kong still needs a top-class concert hall. Maybe the Jockey Club can fund that, too?

Peter Kammerer says since the government appears unwilling to foot the bill for such a venue, despite Hong Kong’s great need for one, it’s time to explore other options

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 12:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 6:59pm

A city that rates itself as highly as Hong Kong should have cultural, entertainment and sporting facilities to match. One that is as cash-rich as ours has no excuse for not providing world-class venues for its people. Yet here we are, decades of such discussion having passed, and still we have facilities that are second- or even third-rate. Attend an event at our premier auditorium, the concert hall at the Cultural Centre on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, and you’ll hear what I mean: inside a building that some refer to as looking like a large toilet block, the acoustics are appalling.

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Visiting orchestras, opera and theatre companies, and jazz and pop performers, should be able to play in a modern hall with adjustable stage and seating, excellent sound quality and facilities. Some that have gained such a reputation are the Philharmonie de Paris, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Mariinsky II Theatre in St Petersburg. In each, computer modelling was used by architects to ensure building materials and design were chosen for the best possible experience for the audience and performers. And what if it was not only a modern complex, but also iconic, like the opera houses in Sydney, Guangzhou (廣州) and the one recently opened in Taichung?

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The West Kowloon Cultural District was supposed to provide that on its 40 hectares of reclaimed land. Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa put the idea forward in his first policy address in 1998 but, after years of debate, false starts, controversy and HK$21.6 billion either spent or allocated, there’s still no certainty Hong Kong will get a world-class venue for large audiences. A mega performance complex likely to seat up to 15,000 in the northwest zone was scrapped last July on the pretext of a lack of available funding and the site has now been allocated to a HK$3.5 billion building to be paid for by the Hong Kong Jockey Club to house treasures from the Palace Museum in Beijing. Given the claimed financing problems – despite the government having trillions of dollars in reserves and annually running tens of billions of surplus in its budget, there’s still no guarantee we’ll get more than a few venues for dance, theatre and opera and the completion date remains rubbery; for now, it’s 2022 and beyond.

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Hong Kong has a handful of smaller venues that have good reputations for acoustics, but none have more than a few hundred seats. Top-class artists would have to charge astronomical prices for tickets if they played public shows in such places. That leaves the cavernous Asia World Expo and the Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai, the big-crowd experience of the Coliseum and the Queen Elizabeth Stadium and the outdated and imperfect City Hall and Sha Tin and Tsuen Wan town halls. And, of course, there’s the much-maligned Cultural Centre. A complaint sometimes heard among show organisers is that our city lacks a venue that can seat between 2,000 and 10,000 people.

Venue problems have not kept international acts from our shores. A decade ago, Hong Kong was a cultural desert with our city being regularly bypassed by big names on their Asian and world tours, but no more; digital piracy has put an end to recording sales and artists are now forced to go on the road to earn a living. Classical artists are regular visitors and in the Western pop realm, acts over the past year have included Madonna, Morrissey and the Chemical Brothers and in coming weeks and months, there’ll be Metallica, James Taylor, Tom Jones, Journey, Madness, and From The Jam. But most are musically over the hill rather than at the top or in fashion, while the global top-grossing performers of the past year gave Hong Kong a wide berth.

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The Cultural Centre, built in 1989, has irregularly shaped internal walls that reflect and distort sound, giving a far-from-perfect experience for all but a small number of people in the audience. Musicians on stage have difficulty hearing themselves and one another. Keep in mind that this was a purpose-built venue; it’s unbelievable that acoustics remain so poor despite repeated efforts by the government to fix the problem. It gives an insight into why concerts elsewhere are so hit-and-miss when it comes to quality of experience. At the end of the day, it’s all about money.

Clearly, though, the Jockey Club isn’t short of cash and public charity. So here’s a suggestion: the Cultural Centre is an architectural, performance and experience mess. It also happens to occupy a harbourside site that would be perfect for an iconic building at which we can be wooed by the world’s finest performers. Tear it down, and if the government is too shy about spending what it is so greedily hoarding, have the club pay for a new concert complex using the latest technology to create a building that will do our city proud.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post