West Kowloon Cultural District is a deserving home for the arts in Hong Kong
Ken Chu says Hong Kong people should support the early completion of the arts hub, which not only benefits the city’s development in many ways, but also signals a deserved recognition of the work of its artists and cultural workers
Nearly a decade ago, New York City, London and Hong Kong were jointly dubbed “Nylonkong” for being the world’s leading financial centres. But while all three were arguably on a par in terms of financial prowess, Hong Kong trailed both New York and London in the vibrancy and diversity of its arts and cultural scene, and still does.
Both New York and London have a wealth of promising and celebrated artists, musicians, performers and writers, not to mention many learned enthusiasts, philanthropists and organisations who act as audience and patrons. Both cities have many renowned galleries, museums and theatres that draw visitors from around the world.
One reason Hong Kong is lagging behind is the lack of venues for our artists to create, experiment and showcase their work, and for the public to learn to appreciate and engage with art.
Hong Kong does have a fair number of privately owned art galleries, in addition to three art clusters for young artists and underfunded art groups in PMQ in Sheung Wan, the Oil Street art space in North Point, and the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Shek Kip Mei. However, they are scattered in different districts and are relatively small, unsuitable for large-scale art exhibitions for an extended period. There are, of course, public museums and community halls operated by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, where exhibitions and cultural activities are held, but they are not exclusively used by the arts community.
Hong Kong is not just short of facilities; it also lacks a landmark venue that’s comparable to, say, New York’s Museum of Modern Art or London’s Tate Modern.
For all these reasons, we should hasten the completion of the West Kowloon Cultural District, which will offer a cluster of venues, theatres and concert halls on the beautiful West Kowloon harbourfront. This art and cultural hub is one of a kind in the world. Built on reclaimed land extending 40 hectares, the hub will be a great platform for local artists to interact with international artists as well as the public. That the land was not auctioned off for lucrative commercial development represents, I believe, the Hong Kong government’s commitment to the city’s art and cultural development.
The cultural district will boost the creative industries, and more.
First, it will enhance Hong Kong’s position in the emerging Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Bay Area as an art and cultural gateway. This will help draw the world’s best talent and corporations to come to Hong Kong to work and live.
Second, the district will strengthen Hong Kong’s role as a super-connector of the Chinese and Western arts worlds. The Hong Kong Palace Museum that will be housed within the district, with its precious artefacts from Beijing’s Palace Museum, will contribute to this aspect.
Third, with all the art and cultural venues and auxiliary retail, entertainment and public education facilities finally available around 2020, the district will add to Hong Kong’s portfolio of tourist attractions, and engender the growth of cultural tourism.
Of course, this project cannot be treated as a panacea for the problems saddling Hong Kong’s arts and cultural development. The challenge needs to be tackled on many fronts.
In education, we should give more emphasis to the arts in schools to cultivate a love and appreciation. At the end of the day, artists need an audience who can appreciate and respond to their work.
Watch: The evolution of the West Kowloon Cultural District
We could also invite overseas theatre groups and orchestras for artist-in-residence programmes, to facilitate exchanges and learning between foreign and local groups.
Further, a dedicated arts and culture bureau should be set up, as promoting the arts is a key policy responsibility of the government. Like the culture ministries in Taiwan and South Korea, the bureau would enable the government to better formulate a comprehensive policy on the arts, and implement it effectively. This would improve accountability and encourage more efficient use of resources. Currently, responsibilities related to arts and cultural development are spread across various bureaus and departments, including the Education Bureau, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, and the Home Affairs Bureau’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department, all of which have many other responsibilities.
In her election manifesto, chief executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor pledged to expedite the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District to “underline Hong Kong’s position as a cultural hub”.
I would like to add one more point: most important of all, the district should be seen as a recognition of the collective efforts of our artists and cultural workers over the years. By supporting the hub, Hong Kong people will be giving well-deserved recognition to the vision and hard work of the arts and cultural community to continuously develop and make our arts scene dynamic and sustainable.
Dr Ken Chu is group chairman and CEO of the Mission Hills Group and a National Committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference