Kam Kwok-leung keeps his finger on the pulse. The media veteran, dubbed godfather of Hong Kong’s creative culture, is often seen dressed to the nines at glamorous film premieres and parties, and has his own theories about the fate of the city. And he shares only in private.
A recent Sotheby’s art auction has drawn Kam’s attention. The 274-year-old auction house teamed up with the singer T.O.P., of Korean pop group Big Bang, for a contemporary art sale entitled #TTTOP that the 28-year-old “curated”.
The singing sensation, real name Choi Seung-hyun, is a serious art collector.
The sale generated much buzz, with young girls flocking to the preview exhibitions to take pictures of the works. The auction, which concluded on October 3 in Hong Kong, fetched HK$136 million and set records.
As we discuss the sale over a cup of milk tea at our favourite cha chaan teng in Wan Chai, there is one question that bothers Kam: can we find a celebrity from Hong Kong that an international auction house can partner with?
“But the first question is, why do they need to find someone from Hong Kong?” Kam asks, taking a sip of the milk tea.
“In the past no one would’ve thought of getting anyone from South Korea. But now the world and our values have changed. Their shows are sell-outs all over the world. Even Westerners can sing K-pop songs at karaoke.”
“OK now, if we must, can we nominate someone from Hong Kong?”
That question is followed by a moment of uncomfortable silence. It is a tough question even for Kam, a pioneer of the creative industries.
The last celebrity who represented Hong Kong at a global event was TVB presenter Nat Chan Pak-cheung, who was the city’s sole torch-bearer at the Rio Olympics.
Members of the public lamented the choice as a disgrace, given that Chan is neither an athlete nor popular. But this is what is left for Hong Kong.
Kam then goes through a list of cultural figures. But from music to literature, finding a celebrated Hong Kong artistic name that can exert global influence proves tough.
It is not like Hong Kong lacks internationally recognised names, says Kam. The city has produced two Cannes best actors, in Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk. Chow Yun-fat is also an international celebrity.
But none of them have global impact.
“Last century, there were still plenty of opportunities for Hong Kong to make things happen and venture outside of our comfort zone,” he says. “And if you do not realise that luck is on your side, you are in great danger.”
But Kam knew his luck back then.
When he began his creative career with TVB in the 1970s, it was the dawn of the golden era of the city’s film and television industries, and for the city itself. Kam took advantage, to constantly reinvent himself, from acting to scriptwriting and producing.
He not only produced the most memorable TV shows like No Biz Like Showbiz (1980) and films – he was among the first to collaborate with mainland China, on fantasy epic A Terra-Cotta Warrior (1989), directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li.
He also discovered talents that went on to become the shiniest stars of Hong Kong culture, such as Patrick Tam, Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To Kei-fung.
Kam then went on to head a number of media corporations. He was the boss of Star TV’s Chinese channel in the late 1980s and headed Metro Broadcast, owned by Asia’s then richest man Li Ka-shing, from the late 1990s onwards. Recalling the times at Metro Radio, he says the launch of the station’s finance channel was one of the most memorable events.
“Because of the restriction of licensing conditions, I told my boss that it would’ve taken at least six months until the authority’s approval to create a new channel. But a week later, I received a call from the authority that I got the green light and a month later Metro Finance was launched,” he says.
It seems that luck, however, is no longer on the side of Hong Kong. Kam now writes a column in Ming Pao Weekly, giving his unique take on the history of glamour.
He says that it breaks his heart to see Hong Kong fail to reinvent itself when it should. If the next round of luck arrives, he hopes people in the city will seize the chance, instead of just “sitting back and enjoying the harvest. We should keep going forward”.
Vivienne Chow is an award-winning journalist and critic specialising in arts and cultural politics based in Hong Kong. Twitter @VivienneChow, Instagram @missviviennechow