Hong Kong as Asia’s cultural hub. How’s that for a policy address suggestion for Carrie Lam?

Douglas Young says that as the government plots the city’s future, it should not neglect the potential of the arts to promote Hong Kong as China’s, and Asia’s, cultural centre

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2018, 5:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2018, 1:16pm

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has been asking the public to submit ideas for her upcoming policy address. This is a good opportunity for everybody to take part in the affairs of this community.

My proposal is in the form of an open letter: Hong Kong has been able to punch well above its weight because its leaders have been able to seize upon the right opportunities. Our recent troubles have distracted the government from focusing on the larger picture. A lack of shared vision will reduce our hope for a brighter future, resulting in more discontent. Such a downward spiral would be tragic, considering the fantastic opportunities ahead.

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China is on the cusp of playing a dominant role in world terms. Its military and financial strength is on the rise, yet its cultural influence is yet to really take off. Shanghai is poised to be the financial hub of China, Beijing the political hub and Hong Kong could play the role of China’s centre for soft power.

There is no city in this part of the world that can claim to be a cultural hub like New York or London. Hong Kong has many advantages. Geographically, we are in the middle of Asia. We have freedom of expression. We enjoy the rule of law. We have a large international community. We border an industrial hinterland, and we have great infrastructure.

This is a unique combination, a basis for a winning formula.

The West Kowloon Cultural District is an essential part of a future creative ecosystem because it will be a showcase and platform for exhibitions and performance. But it is merely a piece of hardware; we also need software to give the project life.

The government has made Hong Kong’s creative industries a top priority, but the results have been underwhelming. Hong Kong is still a second- or third-tier city when it comes to cultural influence. I believe the problems are deep rooted and require some fundamental changes in our mindset.

The idea that culture can be an industry hinges on the notion that culture itself has to be able to generate wealth. It is not an industry if practitioners are struggling to survive, which is the case in Hong Kong. As someone who has been in the business for more than 20 years, I have identified a number of problem areas which need to be addressed.

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First, space. Due to the physical size of Hong Kong, this is not a problem that can be easily solved. Creativity and innovation require space for experimentation, which by definition entails a high degree of failure.

Hong Kong is a city that is very costly to fail in, and practitioners are not able to recover from their mistakes. As a result, most are forced to play it safe. This is anathema to innovation and creativity. Others are forced to turn to day jobs to supplement their creativity. Instead of being professionals, they are amateurs.

In addition to the current schemes to convert old buildings for creative use, much more physical space is necessary for the creative industries to experiment, survive and thrive. Perhaps a more porous border with mainland China will help.

Second, the creative mindset. For the creative industries to thrive, we need to respect creativity. The government can play a role in fostering more respect by acknowledging the work of designers by name. There should also be high-profile awards for excellence, to help designers establish a name. Our society needs to be more culturally aware.

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There should be more support for original work. A respect for authenticity should filter down to the general community.

Third, patronage. The government is in a position to be patrons. This would have an influence on major landlords who are on the next tier. Instead of commissioning well-established names, we should give the next generation of local designers a chance to kick-start their careers.

Yes, there are risks involved, but this is the only way to groom the next generation. The big names of today owe their success to their early visionary patrons. We can reduce the chances of failure by appointing a high-calibre committee to award and supervise contracts.

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The idea of patronage for our own citizens will foster a sense of local pride.

Fourth, the value system. In Hong Kong society today, money is king. In simple terms, those who have the most money are the most respected. For the creative industries to take off, this mindset has to change.

It is accepted that creative practitioners will not be making as much personal income as, say, bankers or people in financial industries, and our joy comes from our work, not from the money we make.

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Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, where wealth is the be-all and end-all, quality of work does not garner respect.

To be respected gives all of us a sense of dignity. This is the fundamental human emotion. Money is one currency to buy respect and human dignity. If we can also introduce value to professionalism, then the creative industries will have their own currency.

Fifth, taste. Those who work in a bureaucratic system may not be best positioned to capture the upcoming cultural trends.

Some of today’s so-called counterculture will one day become mainstream. We need to be well positioned to catch the next wave as it breaks. A body of well-informed cultural insiders needs to be set up as advisers to influence cultural decisions.

In conclusion, we should build towards a society where everyone can develop his or her own talent. They must be supported in their quest to excel. They should be allowed to fail and recover.

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This vision should be communicated to everyone, providing hope and direction for the future.

Hong Kong as Asia’s cultural hub would mean more than just saying we are developing creative industries. It is a simple yet all-encompassing vision which is versatile enough to allow everyone to take part.

Douglas Young is co-founder of Hong Kong-lifestyle brand G.O.D