Neighbourhood Sounds

Neighbourhood Sounds: Cyberport

Complex designed to be the city's vision of the future has an image problem that won't go away, despite popularity of waterfront park

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 October, 2012, 2:26pm

Nestled between a residential development mimicking the French Riviera and the ageing Wah Fu Housing Estate in Pok Fu Lam is a waterfall that helped change the fate of Hong Kong.

In the early 19th century, European mariners - on their way to do business in Guangzhou - came across the waterfall where they could stock up on fresh water, drawing interest from the British to turn the strategically located island into a colony.

While time has left what is now Waterfall Bay untouched - bar the addition of a second world war pillbox - its immediate surroundings have gone on to become Cyberport.

It is a futuristic-looking complex that has aspired to become the region's information communication technology hub, but is an eerily quiet and lifeless neighbourhood.

The area's biggest attraction for visitors is the waterfront park, which has been nicknamed a "dog park" for its lax rules about pets. The shopping mall is less of a draw, offering little variety other than furniture stores, restaurants and a quaint one-stop wedding service that includes a chapel.

In 1999, the government decided that Hong Kong's technology sector needed to become more globally competitive. The administration of Hong Kong's first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, decided the best way to achieve this was to develop a hi-tech campus, Cyberport.

But it controversially awarded the development rights of the project to PCCW, owned by Richard Li Tzar-kai, without a public tender. Under the deal, PCCW built a 990,000 sq ft office complex, a 300,000-sq-ft retail mall and a 173-room luxury hotel managed by Le Meridien hotel chain, all of which were given to the government.

In return, the son of tycoon Li Ka-shing received prime waterfront land to build of 4.5 million sq ft of luxury residential housing and was entitled to 35.5 per cent of the profits from the sale of the homes.

Some have written off Cyberport as a failure, saying its office occupancy rate - now at about 85 per cent - has never reached full capacity since it opened in 2002. But newly elected IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok disagrees, saying Cyberport has contributed significantly to the industry, even if those achievements may be hard for the public to see.

He said the complex has offered a platform for enterprises and start-ups to produce homegrown brands and nurture services in fields as varied as cloud computing and digital entertainment.

The Cyberport Creative Micro Fund has granted HK$3.4 million to 34 projects, including a management system for sports activities that was later bought by a US manufacturer.

A government incubation programme also supports 156 start-ups across Hong Kong with subsidies worth HK$530,000 each for Cyberport tenants and HK$330,000 for those off-site.

Herman Lam Heung-yeung, Cyberport's chief executive officer, said: "We have only one shareholder, which is the government, so we have a strong mandate … We want to build a platform and make entrepreneurship easier."

This includes introducing entrepreneurs to other markets, expanding their network and lining them up with potential business partners. Mok said the public should not expect Cyberport to be a buzzing commercial centre.

"We are not building Central here," he said, adding that a hi-tech campus should offer a quiet and low-density working environment. "If you look at the Google or Apple headquarters, they don't look like Wan Chai."

Cyberport is now home to 74 commercial organisations including Microsoft and IBM, six non-profits, one government department and 30 on-site start-ups, with a total staff of 5,000.

When asked if Cyberport would become Hong Kong's answer to Silicon Valley, Lam said the legendary Californian nest of entrepreneurs was more of a symbol. "We need to create the next generation of entrepreneurs," he said. "We are starting the engine. Once it starts, it will run itself."

But with all the innovation inside its futuristic walls, Cyberport arguably has not shed its negative public image. "When people think of Cyberport, somehow they cannot distinguish between us and Bel-Air," Lam said. "They equate it with property development. We have nothing to do with Bel-Air."

The waterfront park, managed by Cyberport, has bald patches of lawn and lacks a safety fence along the seafront.

Southern district councillor Paul Zimmerman said the 12,000 sq ft park was intended to be a highway, but when the plan was axed, the land became a temporary park by default.

And with the ground being concrete due to its intended purpose, and a lack of funds for maintenance, the park has been unable to flourish.

Zimmerman described the park as "a big asset in a state of disrepair". He hopes the government will soon replace the park's road zoning. If it had an open space zoning, it could formally become a park.

Other than dog owners, the waterfront park has become popular with couples posing for pre-wedding photographs.

Abby Shek Shuk-wah, general manager of GP Wedding, which moved their store from Kowloon Tong to Cyberport, said the park offers a backdrop of sea, mountains, a lake and the lawn. "People used to go to Shek O, Sai Kung or Tai Tam for this type of view, but we have it all here," Shek said.

The company's business premises in the mall includes photo studios, a restaurant to host banquets and a chapel.

But old impressions die hard. On a visit to Waterfall Bay, hidden in the shadow of Cyberport Road, the Post came across a British-born Hongkonger who had joined a volunteer coastal clean-up day with his company.

Asked for his thoughts on Cyberport, he quipped: "Cronyport, you mean?"