West Kowloon Cultural District

Hong Kong Palace Museum to cast its net wide for exhibits, says its chairman, Bernard Chan

Despite close ties with its namesake in Beijing’s Forbidden City, Chan believes flexibility is key for the controversial museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District, to make it more distinctive and attractive to visitors from overseas

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 May, 2018, 7:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 June, 2018, 2:18pm

There is scope for putting on non-Chinese exhibitions at the future Hong Kong Palace Museum despite the connection with its Beijing namesake, according to its chairman, Bernard Charnwut Chan.

It would be an example of the flexibility that Chan, who holds influential positions in business and on Hong Kong cultural bodies, espouses for cultural venues in the city.

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A collaborative agreement with the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City, repository of Chinese imperial treasures, meant most of the exhibits displayed at the Hong Kong museum would be on loan from there, Chan told the Post. But an independent Hong Kong curatorial team was free to exhibit artefacts from anywhere in the world, including Europe, he said.

“Hong Kong Palace Museum Limited is a separate entity and not a branch of the Beijing museum. We need to be distinctly different because why would people want to come to Hong Kong when they can go to Beijing?

“For example, we can borrow from overseas for thematic exhibitions. Let’s say the theme is palace. It can be about royal collections from Europe or anywhere in the world,” he said.

In March, Chan was placed at the helm of the board in charge of planning for the 2022 opening of the controversial museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District.

The project was announced as a surprise “gift from Beijing” by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in 2017 before she was chosen for the post that made her the head of the Hong Kong administration.

The decision to build the museum has been widely criticised because it was made without any public consultation and bypassed the Legislative Council after direct funding was provided for it by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

Concerns have been expressed over the potential for it to be misused in the service of nationalistic propaganda.

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Chan, who ran Lam’s campaign office when she sought election as chief executive, said the museum should also aspire to show artefacts from Taipei’s National Palace Museum one day, though he admitted he doesn’t know whether politics would allow it. The Taipei institution houses imperial treasures removed from China by the Kuomintang government in the 1940s before the Communist Party took power.

Hong Kong Palace Museum Limited is a separate entity and not a branch of the Beijing museum
Bernard Chan

“It is easier said than done, but Hong Kong would be the ideal place for showing the two collections together,” he said.

The 53-year-old scion of a Thai-Chinese business empire said the same principle of flexibility should be applied to other venues built with specific uses in mind, partly because of a shortage of performance venues in Hong Kong.

“The Xiqu Centre is not just for [Chinese opera],” he said, referring to a performance venue that will be one of the first elements of the long-awaited West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) to be completed.

The focus would be firmly on Chinese opera in the initial period after its late-2018 soft launch, “but further down the road, we need to make sure there is enough content for the centre to be used continuously”, Chan said. “There will be other things we need to put inside.”

Chan sits on the board of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority in charge of building and operating what is envisioned as a new arts hub for Hong Kong.

He is also chairman of the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Central Police Station advisory committee. The renovated police station and prison complex in Hollywood Road, now renamed Tai Kwun, will have a soft launch on May 25.

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Chan said the management of the heritage site, which has cost the Jockey Club about double its initial HK$1.8 billion budget, will need to be adjusted depending on public reaction to what’s on offer.

“The Jockey Club will need to test it like a product. It needs to make lots of people happy, including residents in the area, older visitors who come because of the site’s historic value, and those who come for the food and beverage, and the contemporary art gallery,” he said.

Candidates from different countries were being interviewed for the director post at the Hong Kong Palace Museum, Chan said.

“The pool of suitable candidates is not as big as you would find for a contemporary art centre. We are looking for someone who can deal with Beijing and also have international exposure. We hope to have someone in place in about six months’ time,” he said.

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Experts from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department who have co-presented exhibitions with The Palace Museum had been seconded to the WKCD to initiate exhibition planning until a permanent curatorial team is in place, he added.