HK Cultural Centre approaches its quarter century with uncertainty but still a lot going for it

As its quarter century approaches, the tired but still game Cultural Centre is looking forward to the West Kowloon District challenge

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 November, 2014, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 November, 2014, 11:20am

It may be one of the biggest architectural eyesores in Hong Kong, but the Cultural Centre, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on Saturday, continues to be this city's premier performing arts venue. It plays host to many of the world's greatest artists and offers local audiences the best of classical music, ballet and dance, Chinese opera and theatre.

But with the West Kowloon Cultural District looming on the horizon, where does this Tsim Sha Tsui landmark stand at 25 and what do the next 25 years hold?

I first went to the Cultural Centre in 1996 and remember being impressed by the modern feel and good sightlines of the Grand Theatre auditorium - not to mention ticket prices well below what you'd pay in major European or American cities to see top-quality performances.

Eighteen years later, while programming is still strong and ticket prices remain reasonable by international standards, the 1980s building looks dated and its facilities need an upgrade.

Seating lacks legroom. More and better toilets are needed - the recent renovation of the foyer toilets, welcome in itself, has made the ones upstairs look worse by contrast. There's no proper bar or restaurant to make going to a concert or ballet a complete night out the way it is at equivalent venues in other "world cities".

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department management team in charge of the venue is well aware of the issues, says senior manager Gladys Fong Nga-man. "We've already started discussing plans for renovation - we have lists of suggestions for each part of the complex on how to make better use of space and make the centre more friendly and welcoming."

First, though, two major obstacles must be overcome. One is securing funding when the government is cutting back. The other is that the Cultural Centre can't be closed for long enough for major works to be carried out ("It would take months"). The three venues - the Grand Theatre, the Concert Hall and the Studio Theatre - are continually booked (major productions are booked at least a year, often two years ahead) and hirers have few alternative options.

Just upgrading the foyer toilets (which are effectively public toilets) took months of planning. A complete renovation would be a massive project, covering the entire complex, indoors and outdoors. The Cultural Centre isn't just a performance venue: it's a public space that includes the waterfront piazza and the marriage registry.

"Other parts of the waterfront are upgrading," says Fong. These include the New World Centre and the Hong Kong Museum of Art, "so we also need to make sure that all the renovations complement each other."

Then there is catering. "We understand that patrons want the 'total experience'," says senior manager Shirley Choi. "Nowadays their expectations are higher."

Some problems stem from the design of the complex - ventilation issues rule out having a restaurant inside the main building (hence there's only a Starbucks in the foyer).

Watch: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre celebrates its 25th anniversary

There are two restaurants attached to the venue - Café Muse and the fast food-style Deli & Wine - but they're in an adjacent building and there's only one kitchen, which they have to share.

"So we have to have the same caterer for everything," says Choi. The contract (tendered under government rules) is held by Maxim's, which also provides a limited bar service in the main building for selected performances.

Neither the restaurants nor the cheap but cheerless wine in the bar have much appeal to the centre's more sophisticated patrons.

A missed opportunity? Patron services manager Veron Lam Fung-shan says the restaurants are popular with local customers whose main concern is price. "The semi-buffet formula at Muse is very good value compared to other restaurants in Tsim Sha Tsui. It's another market," she says.

If they were to install a more upscale outlet, Lam says, "other patrons will complain that the Cultural Centre is too expensive".

Much of this comes back to the fact that the Cultural Centre is government-funded and run. Choi says there's a big difference between their approach and that of counterparts such as the Sydney Opera House that are under pressure to make profits. Revenue is not the first concern; instead, she says, "we feel responsible for the centre as Hong Kong's premier performing arts venue".

In theory, anyone who has the money can book venues at the Cultural Centre. In practice, the team will assess booking requests to make sure they meet a suitable standard and will be able to sell tickets. "We're arts administrators ourselves and we know how much effort goes into putting on a performance," says Choi. "If we don't think they can fill the venue, we will suggest the organisers go somewhere smaller."

We have lists of suggestions for each part of the complex on how to make better use of space and make the centre more friendly and welcoming

Emphasis on responsibility to hirers and the public is strong. When typhoons loom, they start planning contingency measures as soon as the No1 signal is hoisted and Choi says, proudly, that the venue can reopen in as little as 15 minutes after the No8 goes down.

Unable for now to upgrade its "hardware", the team's focus is on improving "software", in the shape of its staff. "Patrons want a very fast response and lose patience if they don't get what they want immediately," says Choi. They must also be ready to deal with situations of all kinds - the piazza staff do everything from shooing away casino boat touts to helping rescue people who fall into the harbour (this happens more often than you'd think). The inquiries desk is asked for information ranging from programmes at other venues to sightseeing directions.

Staff receive both brickbats and bouquets from the public. All should be seen as positive, Choi insists. "If people take the time to make suggestions, that means they care about the Cultural Centre."

Fong says issues that elicit complaints from some people may draw compliments from others. "Take latecomers - we get calls praising our staff for not letting people interrupt the performance and we also get calls from people complaining that the staff wouldn't let them in."

Another thorny issue is buskers in the piazza - some people enjoy the al fresco entertainment, while others expect staff to make them shut up. "Some of them are good, some aren't," says Choi. "We've even had tourists give the bad ones $500 to stop singing."

Responding to the needs of the centre's diverse stakeholders - hirers, patrons from different demographics, tourists - is an endless balancing act. "We can't please everyone," Choi says.

The team's pride in the venue and dedication to serving the public are impressive, but will it still be Hong Kong's top venue after West Kowloon opens? So far there's been no word from higher up as to how the venue will be positioned. Nonetheless, the team is quietly confident about the future.

For Fong, having alternative venues available is good news - at last they'll be able to close the centre long enough for major renovation - "if we can get the money".

Choi believes the two venues will complement each other and that "competition will drive us to improve". She is quick to point out that West Kowloon can't match the Cultural Centre's superb location.

Other advantages are its expert staff, efficient ticketing and the complete packages - including technical support and equipment - offered to venue hirers. The Concert Hall will still be the biggest in Hong Kong, so the centre's partnership with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra looks set to continue.

It will be interesting to see how the independent West Kowloon District Authority will operate, Choi says. "Maybe we can learn from them - but will it really be better than what we do as a government body?"

[email protected]