Hong Kong’s cultural heritage is about more than the past – it may resolve the city’s identity crisis
Hing Chao says that for a city sharply divided over its identity and its relationship with the mainland, a recent cultural flourishing can teach Hong Kong where it came from and what makes it unique
It has taken Hong Kong many years to shake off its “cultural desert” label. But as the West Kowloon Cultural District slowly comes to life with the launch of the Xiqu Centre in December, to be followed by M+ and the Palace Museum in the coming years, Hong Kong is emerging as an international artistic and cultural powerhouse, with state-of-the-art venues and facilities rivalling anywhere else in the region. Now, no one can seriously doubt Hong Kong’s credentials as a cultural city.
Hong Kong is already a major centre for the art trade: the combined pairing of Fine Arts Asia/Ink Asia and Arts Basel Hong Kong/Art Central anchors arts programmes in autumn and spring, plus major festivals such as Hong Kong Arts Festival, Le French May, Hong Kong Culture Festival, Festive Korea, Bellissima, Japan Autumn Festival, and many more, provide an abundance of cultural events that few cities in the world can rival.
At the same time, the established museums under the Leisure and Cultural Services Department – the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong History Museum and Hong Kong Heritage Museum – are in the midst of significant upgrades. Once perceived as ultra-conservative and content to consume imported exhibitions, Hong Kong museums and curators are now taking the lead in the digital museological revolution in Asia, and offer new narratives on a range of Chinese and international subjects through our own unique interpretation.
The Monet exhibition at the Heritage Museum in 2016 – “Claude Monet: The Spirit of Place” – illustrates this new form of cultural engagement and collaboration between Hong Kong and international museums. A more recent example is “Digital Dunhuang – Tales of Heaven and Earth”, currently on display at the Heritage Museum, where the cultural legacy of the Mogao Grottos is presented and contextualised within a new museological framework that makes full use of new media and digital technologies.
Hong Kong is no longer a cultural backwater. Through the concerted efforts of public and private initiatives, the city is increasingly positioning itself as a pioneer at the forefront of arts and culture.
The otherworldly art of Dunhuang
In the same way that Hong Kong has been an entrepôt for international trade and a commercial bridge between East and West for the past 150 years, it is now starting to fulfil a new role as cultural mediator between China and the world, and a middle ground where differences in opinion are not only tolerated, but given the freedom to engage in open dialogue. Hopefully, this will lead to an expanded understanding from both sides, and in due course give rise to new cultural and artistic forms through an organic process of dialogue, exchange and fusion.
As a resurgent China looks to exert and export its soft power, Hong Kong is once again primed to be a springboard and centre for transcultural dialogue.
The arts and culture scene in Hong Kong has never been so well off and promises so much for the future.
However, while we ride on this wave of optimism, at least in terms of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s artistic and cultural development, there is no doubt that Hong Kong has lost some of its identity and that, for a lot of people, a heavy sense of uncertainty hangs over our future.
Partly a legacy of our colonial past, and partly due to our education system allowing a generation of young people to go through secondary school without learning about history, a small, radicalised section of society has chosen to define Hong Kong and what its stands for in purely negative terms, mainly in contradistinction to China.
The outward expression of this small but vociferous group is often subsumed under the disguise of “localism” and “local culture”, only, their knowledge and penetration of Hong Kong culture is skin-deep, and fails to either appreciate the historic processes, or touch upon the essential qualities, that have created and characterise Hong Kong culture.
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Needless to say, much of the emotionally charged public discourse and demonstration of dissent is counterproductive. Not only do they offer no constructive solution, they intrinsically fail to address, and indeed detract from, the real problems in Hong Kong society.
This brings me back to the question of culture. Culture matters because it is through culture that we claim and express our identity. Embedded within culture is a society’s memory of the past and its attitude to the present. Hong Kong’s heritage is a consequence and legacy of our historic experience, which is conditioned by Hong Kong’s role as a middle ground between China and the world since the 19th century.
On the surface, this Hong Kong culture is found in Hong Kong-style milk tea, macaroni cooked in chicken broth, Hong Kong tailors and all the other outward aspects of daily life that remind us of this unique East-West blend.
But at a more profound level, in the decades after the second world war, Hong Kong has provided an ecosystem where Chinese traditions – high and low, elite and popular – have been allowed to continue uninterrupted and interact with artistic forms and cultural trends from elsewhere, giving rise to a unique Hong Kong culture that is at once a legacy of the past and an innovation that transcends old boundaries.
Hong Kong’s role as the middle ground has shifted and transformed over time, but our city has survived every challenge that has been thrown at it because of our collective resilience and ability to adapt. As we find ourselves on the threshold of a new era, it is vitally important we learn from the past, and remember the lessons that have made Hong Kong great.
As a maturing society, it is time for us to tell our story in our own voice, for buried deep in our social history and cultural DNA we will discover our identity and destiny. Heritage is not just about the past, it is also about the future.
Hing Chao is the founder of Hong Kong Culture Festival, executive director of Wah Kwong Maritime Transport Holdings Ltd., and an expert in various aspects of culture and heritage in Hong Kong and China