Hong Kong's cultural influencers on the trends in 2015
Predictions for this year are for gains on the arts, music and literary fronts, but it will be uphill for films
We ask people from Hong Kong's arts and entertainment sectors to gaze into a crystal ball and predict what trends are likely to be seen in the city's cultural scene this year.
While both production and consumption of English-language books remain a minority interest in Hong Kong, the Chinese-language market will continue to be buoyant, according to the local literary community. And when it comes to fostering a culture of literary appreciation, the city is also heading in the right direction.
"We've just come out of a period of so many literary events, festivals and visiting writers, including people like Paul Theroux and David Sedaris," says author Xu Xi, who also runs the creative writing course at City University.
"It made me think about how much bigger the literary scene is in Hong Kong. There are significantly more publishers, so there's more of a venue for local writers. There are more literary journals, more university courses, and a bilingual undergraduate course at Baptist University, plus [poet and professor] Bei Dao at Chinese University has brought major international voices here, including in English. You can't have a literary scene without writers, and this city didn't encourage them - that's changed."
Martin Alexander, editor-in-chief of the Asia Literary Review, agrees that there's increased vibrancy in our literary scene, pointing to the growing number of literary events, publishers and English-language bookshops, and improvements to university courses and to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, "which feels like it's really starting to go somewhere".
Hong Kong-based writer and filmmaker Duncan Jepson says the market for English-language writing is understandably tiny, and unlikely to grow much. "Cantonese is so strong that expressions in English don't have much resonance; there's not much interest in English-language characterisation and psychology. The stories you tell can be quite specific to other people living in Asia, and don't translate well when you get to the West," he says. "But in the Chinese market, there's a huge amount of activity."
The strength of Hong Kong's Chinese-language publishing is also beginning to extend internationally, says Marysia Juszczakiewicz, founder-owner of the Peony Literary Agency. "Hong Kong Chinese fiction writers who write in Chinese haven't had much interest outside Hong Kong in the past, but that's starting to change." Magic-realist writer Dorothy Tse Hiu-hung, in particular, is generating much interest overseas, she adds.
The recent protests, and the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland, have inevitably been a focus of non-fiction writing recently, and Juszczakiewicz believes that will soon be the case in fiction, too. "I've certainly had interest from publishers on the whole Hong Kong protest story. Literary journals are releasing pieces about it by Hong Kong writers and people involved in the movement, and there's international interest."
Hong Kong's arts boom shows no signs of slowing down, with more and bigger galleries and shows, more arts education and a growing auction market. But the effects of the boom will also continue to be seen in 2015 in non-commercial art spaces, and in local production, say the experts.
The city's gallery line-up was transformed after ArtHK was acquired by ArtBasel in 2011, says Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva, editor-in-chief and co-founder of local art magazine Pipeline.
"ArtHK was doing splendidly by itself, but the change dragged in a lot of attention. Big, blue-chip galleries chose to move here: White Cube, Galerie Perrotin, Pearl Lam coming back from Shanghai - all these people get Hong Kong on the map in terms of exhibitions," she says. "At first the galleries were just trying to create a market, but now they're also trying to show Hong Kong artists. The bottom line is there's more diversity here, from the tiniest exhibitions up to Jeff Koons."
Tobias Berger, curator at M+, the West Kowloon Cultural District's planned museum, agrees. "In the past few years, it's just been exploding. There were no galleries, and now there are all these great galleries that bring some amazing shows to town, plus galleries overseas are more interested in Hong Kong artists," he says. "Also there's the big new Para Site space, a big step forward for the non-profit sector, which is important."
Para Site's executive director, Cosmin Costinas, says the growth underlines how Hong Kong's art world has become broader-based. "What's crucial is that Hong Kong's importance as an art centre is no longer entirely commercial. Other pillars like M+ and West Kowloon are important as a major counterbalance to the art fair and the gallery system. There are various new spaces for non-commercial art, and that's positive for Hong Kong."
Activities that build a culture of art appreciation will also continue to grow, says Sanchez-Kozyreva. "There are now attempts to develop an audience and make it more accessible, with more social, real things happening: talks, educational events, evenings at galleries. There'll be more of that this year."
The result, says Berger, is that art collecting, while still a minority pursuit, is starting to gain traction among Hongkongers. "One big change is that there's now a group of mostly younger local collectors buying a lot of contemporary art, both from Hong Kong and international," the curator says. "They're not just interested in blue-chip works - they're willing to take risks. That's probably the best news of last year."
Although there was a slight downturn in the quality of foreign music acts visiting Hong Kong during 2014, it was a blip in an otherwise general upward trend, according to the city's music community.
"It's all looking pretty good to me," says Chris Bowers, founder of promoter Underground Hong Kong and who's known as the city's "godmother of rock". She says more bands are coming here, and more are returning. "Hong Kong is now a stop on the tour map," she adds.
Nonetheless, Clockenflap music director Justin Sweeting says last year was an unusually tough one when it came to persuading international bands to tour Hong Kong. The reshaped economics of the music industry, with little money to be made from selling recordings, mean that bands are touring more and more, which augurs well for Hong Kong in the long term; in the short term, however, it has resulted in an uptick in bookings for international acts in the West, particularly the US.
"It was an odd year. Asia wasn't so much on the agenda for big overseas acts. If you look at the bands' schedules, it's remarkable that we get what we do," Sweeting says. "But live music in Hong Kong is improving on every level. The local band scene is getting much better. Shows here used to be 70 to 80 per cent expat, and now they're often 90 per cent local, which is exactly what we need."
The reunion tour concert of 1990s British shoegazing band Slowdive at Kitec in July, for example, drew a young, mostly local crowd of more than 1,000.
For small local bands and for big touring acts, Hong Kong has plenty of venues but there's a lack of mid-size spaces where both bigger local and smaller international acts can perform - and there are few signs of any of those coming on the horizon.
"Venues are the main problem," says DJ Jane Blondel, one-half of indie promoter Songs for Children. "It really dictates what's happening. A lot of mid-range bands we just can't put on because there's no venue, and when local bands become bigger it's a problem for them, too," she says.
"There are lots of potentially interesting venues but they can't get an entertainment licence." However, Blondel has high hopes for PMQ (the former Police Married Quarters on Hollywood Road in Central), which could offer an atmospheric, centrally located mid-size venue.
Cinema has always been the area of the arts in which Hong Kong has had the biggest role as a producer, but that has been on the wane, sliding from its mid-1990s peak of 200 films a year to just 42 last year, according to figures from Hong Kong Box Office Limited. And there's no reason to assume that will change in 2015, the city's film community says.
There's also little market for locally produced films, according to Winnie Tsang Lai-fun, managing director of film distributor Golden Scene. "The problem is that Hong Kong is really under-screened. When there's a Hollywood blockbuster out, especially one in 3D, all the cinemas just play that all the time, and it means that there's no room for Chinese films - and Hollywood is producing more and more blockbusters, especially sequels," Tsang says.
That's a trend that looks set to continue, says Bede Cheng Tze-wang, senior programme manager at Metroplex cinema. "If you look at the 2015 line-up, it's another year of blockbuster sequels and superhero movies. A theatre's an expensive piece of real estate, and it's natural that everyone wants to make as much money from it as possible, so they show blockbusters. We're one of the few theatres left on the ground floor - most are on about the 10th floor of shopping malls."
The focus on the Hong Kong film industry in recent years has turned to co-productions with companies from the mainland - but inevitably, says Cheng, when it comes to weighing a potential audience of seven million against one of 1.35 billion, Hong Kong often gets lost. "Usually they'll put it in a China context and it won't work in Hong Kong, but it still comes labelled as a Hong Kong studio product. Hopefully they can find a halfway point, where films can be shown in China but still have recognisable Hong Kong origins."
The shrinking of the industry is causing a talent shortage, says Tsang. "There's a gap - we don't have big local stars when you want to make a film for the younger generation here in Hong Kong; there are plenty in Taiwan."
The same effect is being felt at all levels of the industry, says filmmaker Jepson. "The reality is that if you're a young filmmaker, this is not a place to learn the trade any more. There are a lot of places teaching people, but then nowhere for them to work," he says.
"Even the TV channels, where there was a huge presence here a few years ago, have largely gone to Singapore. If you don't have apprenticeships or anyone to learn the craft from, you can't get it back."